Category Archives: French History

Frenchness and Jewishness, Eternally Incompatible?


James McAuley, The House of Fragile Things:

Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France

(Yale University Press, 2021)

In The House of Fragile Things, Washington Post Global correspondent James McAuley examines the place of Jews and the role of anti-Semitism in French history and culture, from the perspective of four prominent Jewish families and their art collections.  The four families—whose histories he details over the course of an approximate hundred-year period, from the second half of the nineteenth-century through the first half of the twentieth—are the Camondos, Reinachs, Cahens d’Anvers, and, most familiar but least important to the story, the Rothschilds. All four families migrated to France from points further east; all amassed huge fortunes in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, mostly in the banking and financial sectors; and, as befit France’s upwardly mobile bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all pieced together extraordinary art collections, displayed in opulent houses and châteaux which they designed.  From one generation to the next, moreover, their young men and women regularly married among themselves.

McAuley uses the four families’ experiences to highlight the tension between France’s official adherence to the universal republican values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—based on the equality of all men (and sometimes even women!), all simply “citizens” in the French Republic, without regard to other identities—and the ever-present force of anti-Semitism, sometimes hidden, often overt.  In its most virulent form, anti-Semitism held that Jews, including the wealthy Jews who are the subject of the study, could never be fully French.  Understanding the world of these Jewish families and their battles against anti-Semitism, McAuley argues, constitutes a key to “one of the central and unresolved dilemmas in modern French history: the place of minority communities in a society of ‘universal’ citizens … that emerged from the French Revolution” (p.6).

The families McAuley portrays demonstrated their allegiance to France by embracing wholeheartedly the republican values of the Revolution.  They were “careful architects of an identity that sought to present Frenchness and Jewishness as symbiotic, and perhaps even as natural extensions of each other” (p.6).  They collected art, especially pieces with a noble provenance and history, as “testimonies to the specific people they were but also to the proud identity this milieu sought to build—Jewish and French, particular and universal” (p.7).   As different as the collections might have been from one another, they constituted for their collectors a public statement—their attempt to write Jews into France’s national narrative, buttressing the argument in favor of the “eternal compatibly of Frenchness and Jewishness” (p.188).

But rather than being eternal, McAuley soberly concludes, the compatibility of Frenchness and Jewishness proved to be an illusion.  The conclusion became inescapable with the fall of France in 1940, when the invading Nazis found a willing partner in the collaborationist Vichy regime, a regime which undertook the “great undoing of the French Revolution [as] a nationalist rejoinder to the excesses of liberal democracy and the impotence of a decadent society” (p.215).   Within months, the “entire social world” that the families had assiduously constructed over the course of a century revealed itself as a most “fragile thing” indeed, a social world that was “quickly and deliberately destroyed with the approval—and even the encouragement—of the same nation they had championed”  (p.217).

* * *

The French Revolution provided citizenship to France’s sizeable Jewish population.  But it also induced a strident conservative reaction, based on a vision of France as Catholic, aristocratic, and monarchial, a country deeply tied to the land and rural life.  In nineteenth-century French conservative circles, the universal values of the Revolution came to be perceived as a “discourse about Jews,” McAuley writes, who were viewed as the “victors of the Revolution” (p.49).  As the four families prospered in the second half of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism waxed and waned, but came unambiguously to the forefront during the century’s last decade with the polarizing treason trials of Alfred Dreyfus (in 2012, I reviewed here three works on the Dreyfus Affair).

Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew with an impeccable military record, was falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans.  In 1899, after the zealous campaign of the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous tract J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison. He was then given a second trial in which he was again found guilty despite evidence strongly supporting his innocence. It was not until 1906 that a military commission officially exonerated him.  Joseph Reinach, a prominent member of McAuley’s elite Jewish milieu, became France’s most consistent and fierce defender of Dreyfus after Zola, writing a detailed and authoritative account of the affair.

Except for Reinach’s writing, however, the elite milieu remained mostly silent about the “collective wound” (p.67) of the Dreyfus affair, retreating into a “fierce clannishness” that “transcended the injunction to marry within the Jewish community” (p.163; marriage outside the faith was not only a recurring source of friction for the families; in the case of women, it may have been a way of asserting independence from the families’ tribal patriarchy).  The Dreyfus affair jeopardized the four families’ “carefully constituted social positions” (p.65) and forced them to see themselves as others saw them, underscoring the “fragility of their illusions” (p.64).  For McAuley’s families, Dreyfus constituted what he terms a “bitter reminder that the world as they understood it was not the world as it was, and that in fact it never had been” (p.65).

As the families sought escape from late-nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, art collecting came to be seen more as a necessity than just a rich man’s pastime, providing the collectors with a “profound sense of solace and sanctuary” (p.7).  In the Dreyfus era, France’s most acerbic anti-Semitic commentators frequently expressed their disdain for Jews and Judaism in material terms, criticizing the Jewish collectors and their collections as “inauthentic,” the work of “outsiders” who could never acquire true French aristocratic taste.  For Edmond de Goncourt, a prominent anti-Semitic journalist of the 1880s and a “self-appointed arbiter of taste,” Jews were “fundamentally counterfeit, doomed to a mimetic parroting of a national identity that could never be theirs” (p.47-48; the annual Prix Goncourt, awarded today for France’s most imaginative literary work, is named after Goncourt and his brother).  Léon Daudet, another virulently anti-Semitic journalist, attacked Jewish collectors through the objects they bought and the houses they owned.  They were no more than “facsimiles of Frenchmen,” Daudet contended, “truncated, hybrid beings … in search of an impossible nationality” (p.48).

The opportunity to refute the premises of the era’s anti-Semitism once and for all came with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, less than a decade after Dreyfus’ exoneration.  McAuley quotes an historian who wrote that 1914 was the moment when elite Jews “definitively considered themselves emancipated in the spirit of 1789 and fully integrated into the nation” (p.91).  Most members of the four families felt a “profound sense of obligation to contribute to the French war effort in whatever way possible” (p.94).  There was “almost a sense of romance in conscription” (p.80), McAuley notes.  Some of the families offered their homes as military hospitals, with Jewish women often working as nurses.  For the elite milieu of the four families, World War I was the “moment when they definitely proved their Frenchness—at least in their own eyes” (p.80).

But the war’s potential for social redemption and personal glory quickly gave way to harsher realities.  Adolphe Reinach, the son of the Dreyfusard Joseph, was killed in the  Ardennes in August 1914.   McAuley, however, gives more attention to the death of Nissim de Camondo in 1917, shot down at age twenty-five in aerial combat somewhere over Lorraine.  From the time of Nissim’s death, McAuley’s often sprawling narrative focuses increasingly on the Camondo family: Nissim, his sister Béatrice, and their parents, Moïse and Irène Cahen d’Anvers.

* * *

Moïse de Camondo, born in Constantinople, in addition to directing and adding to the family’s banking fortune, became the foremost art collector among the four families.  In 1910, Moïse inherited a house from his mother on Paris’ rue de Monceau, at the edge of the Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement, which he remodeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles.  As dedicated as he was to republican values, Moïse entertained a nostalgia for the eighteenth-century aristocratic era, an “imagined social world in which elites, as they had been before the French Revolution, were free to pursue lives of dalliance and refinement at the same time as they controlled the natural order that afforded them such pleasure” (p.107).

Moïse’s wife Irène became the center of a widely publicized scandal when she left her husband and two children to marry an Italian count, and at the same time converted to Catholicism.  As an eight-year-old, Irène had been the subject of a famous Renoir portrait, La Petite Irène, to which McAuley refers throughout the narrative.  The portrait was seized by the Nazis; for a time became part of Hermann Göering’s personal collection; was recaptured by Irène after the war; and was then sold to a Ger­man-born Swiss arms man­u­fac­tur­er who had col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Nazis.

Nissim, Moïse and Irène’s only son, had been expected to take over the family business, but had not shown himself particularly adept at finance.  He seemed to look at military service in wartime as an escape from the listless existence of a rich but aimless young man.  The news of Nissim’s death devastated Moïse, who for a while stopped eating and sleeping, and refused initially to accept that his son was not coming back.  When Nissim’s body could not be located, denying him a proper Jewish burial, Moïse set out to reclaim his son’s remains with “more vigor than any other object he ever sought” (p.101).  It took him years, but he eventually arranged to steal the body and bring it back to Paris.

In the 1930s, Moïse donated both the rue Monceau house and the collection it contained to the French state.  The house became the Musée Nissim de Camando, designed both to memorialize Moïse’s fallen son and to celebrate the “ancien régime aesthetic” that Moïse had “tirelessly pursued for decades”  (p.192).  McAuley considers the museum—today part of Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs—as Moïse’s rejoinder to Goncourt and his ilk, demonstrating that a Jew “could not only be French but proudly so, a credible arbiter of what Moïse called the ‘glories of France’” (p.195).  A significant number of Jewish collectors established private collection museums in France in the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1935, the same year that Moïse bequeathed his house and collection to the state, Charles Cahen d’Anvers donated his country estate, Château de Champs, to France. The château was transferred to the Ministry of Culture in 1971.

* * *

In an inter-generational study that contains multiple portraits of individuals from the four families, Béatrice de Camondo—Moïse’s daughter and Nissim’s sister—stands out as McAuley’s lead character, featured both at the book’s opening and its closing.  A prominent Parisian socialite when France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Béatrice had two children, Fanny, then twenty years old, and Bertrand, seventeen.  In 1940, she was already separated from and in the process of divorcing her husband, Léon Reinach, an aspiring musician who was the son of Joseph Reinach’s brother, Théodore, a wide-ranging intellectual who had given his Greek-themed Villa Kérylos on the Cote d’Azur to the Institut de France in the 1920s.

Béatrice was also converting to Catholicism. She was typical of her generation of elite French Jews who felt little attachment to the Jewish faith or Jewish communal life.  She didn’t take particularly seriously the Vichy government’s edicts about Jews, which in her view were aimed at recent immigrant Jews, whom she and her family looked down upon.  Nor did she see any need to try to escape.  In September 1942, she wrote with emphasis that she was “certain” that she would be “miraculously protected” by God and the Virgin “for years”  (p.231).  In fact, McAuley notes, Béatrice’s protection lasted exactly three months.

Despite her claim to no longer being Jewish and her standing in the right social circles, despite her family’s contributions to French artistic and cultural life over generations, Béatrice was arrested and sent to the notorious holding camp at Drancy, outside Paris.  From there, she and her two children were deported to Auschwitz, where they died in early 1945, just weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Soviet Army. In a cruel irony, Béatrice’s ex-husband Léon also wound up at Auschwitz, and he too perished, in late 1944.

What Béatrice had failed to realize, McAuley writes, was that the establishment of the Vichy government and its persecution of France’s Jewish citizens was the end of the “hybrid identity that earlier generations had sought to refine and, ultimately, to display” (p.217).   From that time forward, Jews, including those who had strayed from Judaism, were “confined into a single identity category,” told in no uncertain terms that they no longer belonged to France, and that “in fact they never had” (p.217).  As part of his research, McAuley was able to uncover Béatrice’s death certificate, which stated that she had “Died for France” (“Mort pour la France”), the usual inscription for fallen soldiers like her brother Nissim.  Béatrice died not for France, McAuley writes indignantly, but “because of France, and specifically because she had been Jewish in France” (p.256).

The Moïse de Camondo line was extinguished entirely at Auschwitz.  As to those elite Jews who survived the war, the betrayals of the Vichy years irreversibly undermined the faith of many in the “nominally universal values of the French republic.”  Some renounced any kind of Jewish identity, while others left France for the United States, Great Britain, and South America.

* * *

Without mentioning specifically Eric Zemmour, McAuley alludes to the current French presidential candidate’s argument that the Vichy government protected French-born Jews as a matter of principle, targeting only foreign Jews (Zemmour has also questioned Dreyfus’ innocence).  Most historians agree that French-born Jews fared better than foreign-born Jews under the Vichy regime, with approximately 75% surviving.  But that still means that 25% did not survive, McAuley notes, and his emphasis on Béatrice de Camondo’s fate brings the point home graphically.  By reminding us how extensive France’s unforgiving anti-Semitism was under Vichy, McAuley not only sheds light on a discomforting slice of French history.  He also provides a timely contribution to France’s polarizing contemporary debates about what it means to be French.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 17, 2022

 

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Filed under France, French History, History, Religion

Deciphering a Confounding Thinker

 

 

Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil:

A Life in Five Ideas (University of Chicago Press)

 

Simone Weil is considered today among the foremost twentieth-century French intellectuals, on par with her luminous contemporaries Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. And yet she was not widely known when she died at age 34 in 1943. Although she wrote profusely, only small portions of her writings were published during her lifetime. Much of her written work was left in private notebooks and published posthumously. It was only after the Second World War, as Weil’s writings increasingly came to light, that a comprehensive picture of her thinking emerged —comprehensive without necessarily being coherent. In The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, Robert Zaretsky attempts to provide this coherence.

Indeed, Weil was a confounding thinker whose body of thought and the life she lived seem awash in contradictions. As Zaretsky notes at the outsetWeil was:

an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery, a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem, [and] the most willful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self (p.2).

 Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston and one of the Anglophone world’s most fluent writers on French intellectual and cultural history, aims not so much to dispel these contradictions as to distill Weil’s intellectual legacy, contradictions and all, into five core ideas encapsulating the body of political, social, and theological thought she left behind. These five ideas are: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness—each the object of a separate chapter.

Unsurprisingly, these five Weilian ideas are far more intricate and multi-faceted than the single words suggest, and they are inter-related, with what Zaretsky terms “blurred borders” (p.14).  Moreover, the five ideas are presented in approximate chronological order: the first three chapters on affliction, attention, and resistance concern mostly Weil in the 1930s; while the last two on rootedness and goodness primarily cover her wartime years from 1940 to 1943—her most productive literary period.

Each chapter can be read as a standalone essay, and Zaretsky would likely discourage us from searching too eagerly for threads that unite the five into an overarching narrative. But there is one connecting thread which provides context for the apparent contradictions in Weil’s life and thought: collectively, the five ideas tell the story of Weil’s transformation from an exceptionally empathetic yet otherwise conventional 1930s non-communist, left-wing intellectual—Jewish and secular—to someone who in her final years found commonality with conservative political and social thought, embraced Catholicism and Christianity, and was profoundly influenced by religious mysticism. Although not intended as a biography in the conventional sense, The Subversive Simone Weil begins with a short but helpful overview of Weil’s abbreviated life before plunging into her five ideas.

* * *

Weil was born in 1909 and brought up in a progressive, militantly secular bourgeois Jewish family in Paris. Her older brother André became one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished mathematicians. She graduated in 1931 from France’s renowned École Normale Supérieure, the same school that had accorded diplomas to Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron a few years earlier.  After ENS, she took three secondary teaching positions in provincial France, and also managed to find her way to local factories, where she taught workers in evening classes and with limited success did some of the hard factory work herself.

In 1936, Weil joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and was briefly involved in combat operations before she inadvertently stepped into a vat of boiling cooking oil, severely injuring her foot. After she returned to France to allow her injury to heal, she had three seemingly genuine mystical religious experiences that set in motion what Zaretsky characterizes as rehearsals for her “slow and never quite completed embrace of Roman Catholicism” (p.134).  When Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940, Weil and her parents caught the last train out of Paris for Marseille, where they stayed for almost two years before leaving for New York. While in Marseille, Weil was deeply influenced by Joseph-Marie Perrin, a nearly blind Dominican priest, and came close but stopped short of a formal conversion to Catholicism.

Weil left her parents in New York for London, where she joined Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, with ambitions that never materialized to return to France to battle the Nazis directly. While in London, her primary responsibility was to work on reports detailing a vision for a liberated and republican France. Physically frail most of her life, Weil suffered from migraines, and may have been on a hunger strike when she died of complications from tuberculosis in 1943, in a sanatorium south-east of London.

* * *

Malheur was Weil’s French term for “affliction.” This is the first of the five ideas that Zaretsky distills from Weil’s life and thought, in which we see Weil at her most political. Her idea of affliction appears to have arisen principally from her experiences working in factories early in her professional career.  Yet, affliction for Weil was the condition not just of factory workers, but of nearly all human beings in modern, industrial society—the “unavoidable consequence of a world governed by forces largely beyond our comprehension, not to mention our control” (p.36).  Affliction was “ground zero of human misery” (p.36), entailing psychological degradation as much as physical suffering.

The early Weil was attracted politically to anarcho-syndicalism, a movement that urged direct action by workers as the means to achieve power in depression-riddled 1930s France, with direct democracy of worker co-operatives as its end. In these years, Weil was an “isolated voice on the left who denounced communism with the same vehemence as she did fascism” (p.32), Zaretsky writes, comparing her to George Orwell and Albert Camus. With what Zaretsky describes as “stunning prescience” (p.32), she foresaw the foreboding consequences of totalitarianism emerging both in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.

Attention, sometimes considered Weil’s central ethical concept, involves how we see the world and others in it. But it is an elusive concept, “supremely difficult to grasp”  (p.46).  Attention was attente in French: waiting, which requires the canceling of our desires.  Attention takes place in what Zaretsky terms the world’s salle d’attente, its waiting room, where we “forget our own itinerary and open ourselves to the itineraries of others” (p.54).  Zaretsky sees the idea of attention at work in Weil’s approach to teaching secondary school students, where her emphasis was on identifying problems rather than finding solutions. She seemed to be telling her students that it’s the going there, not getting there, that counts. Although not discussed by Zaretsky, there are echoes of Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship in Weil’s notion of attention.

Zaretsky refrains from terming the Spanish Civil War a turning point for Weil, but it seems to have been just that.  Her brief experience in the war, combined with a growing realization of the existential threat which the Nazis and their fascist allies posed to European civilization, prompted her to revise her earlier commitment to pacifism. This is one consequence of resistance—Zaretsky’s third idea — which aligned Weil with the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, who taught their followers to resist recklessness, panic and passion. For Weil, resistance was an affirmation that the “truly free individual is one who takes the world as it is and aligns with it as best they can” (p.64), as Zaretsky puts it. Weil’s Spanish Civil War experience also gave rise to a growing conviction that “politics alone could not fully grasp the human condition” (p.133).

Rootedness—the fourth idea—arises out of Weil’s visceral sense of having been torn from her native France.  Déracinement, uprooting, was the founding sentiment for The Need for Roots, her final work, in which she emphasized how the persistence of a people is tied to the persistence of its culture—a community’s “deeply engrained way of life, which bends but is not broken as it carries across generations” (p.99).  Rootedness takes place in a “finite and flawed community” and became for Weil the “basis for a moral and intellectual life.” A community’s ties to the past “must be protected for the very same reason that a tree’s roots in the earth must be protected: once those roots are torn up, death follows” (p.126).

There is no evidence that Weil read either the Irish Whig Edmund Burke or the German Romantic Johann Herder, leading conservatives of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Nonetheless, Zaretsky finds considerable resonance between Weil’s sense of rootedness and Burke’s searing critique of the French Revolution, as well as Herder’s rejection of the universalism of the Enlightenment in favor of preserving local and linguistic communities.  Closer to her own time, Weil’s views on community aligned surprisingly with those of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, two leading early twentieth-century French conservatives whose works turned on the need for roots. Zaretsky also finds commonalities between Weil and today’s communitarians, who reject the individualism of John Rawls.

But Weil also applied her views on rootedness to French colonialism, putting her at odds with her wartime boss in London, Charles de Gaulle, who was intent upon preserving the French Empire.  She perceived no meaningful difference between what the Nazis had done to her country—invaded and conquered—and what the French were doing in their overseas colonies.  Weil was appalled by the notion of a mission civilisatrice, a civilizing mission underlying France’s exertion of power overseas. It was essential for Weil that the war against Germany “not obscure the brute fact of French colonization of other peoples” (p.111).  Although Weil developed her idea of rootedness in the context of forced deportations brought about by Nazi conquests, she recognized that rootlessness can occur without ever moving or being moved. Drawing upon her idea of affliction, Weil linked this form of uprooting to capitalism and what the nineteenth-century English commentator Thomas Carlyle termed capitalism’s “cash nexus.”

Zaretsky’s final chapter on Goodness addresses what he terms Weil’s “brilliant and often bruising dialogue with Christianity” (p.134), the extension of her three mystical experiences in the late 1930s.  The battle was bruising, Zaretsky indicates, because as a one-time secular Jew Weil’s desire to surrender wholly to the Church’s faith ran up against her indignation at much of its history and dogma.  “Appalled by a religion with universal claims that does not allow for the salvation of all humankind,” Weil “refused to separate herself from the fate of unbelievers. Anathema sit, the Church’s sentence of banishment against heretics filled Weil with horror” (p.135).  Yet, in her final years, Catholicism became the “substance and scaffolding of her worldview” (p.34), Zaretsky writes.

But Zaretsky’s emphasis is less on Weil’s theological views than on how she found her intellectual bridge to Christianity through the ancient Greeks, especially the thought of Plato.  Ancient Greek poetry, art, philosophy and science all manifested the Greek search for divine perfection, or what Plato termed “the Good.”  For Weil, faith appears to have been the pursuit of Plato’s Good by other means. The Irish philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, who helped introduce Weil to a generation of British readers in the 1950s and 1960s, explained that Weil’s tilt toward Christianity amounted to dropping one “o” from the Good.

* * *

Simone Weil was a daunting figure, intimidating perhaps even to Zaretsky, who avers that her ability to plumb the human condition “runs so deep that it risks losing those of us who remain near the surface of things” (p.38).  Zaretsky, however, takes his readers well below the surface of her body of thought in this eloquent work, producing a comprehensible structure for understanding an enigmatic thinker. His work should hold the interest of readers already familiar with Weil and those encountering her for the first time.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 31, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog, maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

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Conservatives, Where Are They Coming From?

Roger Scruton, Conservatism:

An Invitation to the Great Tradition

(St. Martin’s Press)

Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition should be read in tandem with Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, reviewed here earlier this month.  Scruton, a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature who currently teaches at the University of Buckingham, has produced a work much like that of Rosenblatt, an erudite yet eminently readable piece of intellectual history.  Whereas Rosenblatt’s work centers on the etymology of the word “liberal,” Scruton focuses on what he terms the “tradition” of conservatism — but that may be a distinction without a difference.

The journey that Scruton takes his readers on overlaps at a surprising number of junctures along the way with people and places highlighted in Rosenblatt’s work, including a focus on the same core countries: France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States.  Scruton’s work accords more attention to Great Britain than to the other three and might be considered first and foremost a portrayal of the British conservative tradition.  But Scruton locates the origins of that tradition in the 18th century Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Rosenblatt’s starting points for modern liberalism.

Modern conservatism, Scruton writes, began more as a “hesitation within liberalism than as a doctrine and philosophy in its own right” (p.33).  The relationship between liberalism and conservatism, he emphasizes, should not be thought of as one of “absolute antagonism” but rather of “symbiosis” (p.55).  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, liberals and conservatives sparred in various contexts over the implications and limitations of the revolution’s ideals of liberté and égalité and the management of change.  Conservative hesitations “began to crystallize as theories and policies” (p.33) as a necessary counter to what Scruton terms the “liberal individualism” that the French Revolution seemed to prioritize.

Liberal individualism leads to a belief in the “right of individuals and communities to define their identity for themselves, regardless of existing norms and customs” (p.6), Scruton writes.  In the eyes of conservatives, liberal individualism does not regard liberty as a “shared culture, based on tacit conventions” (p.6).  This perception runs counter to the liberalism that Rosenblatt depicts, in which liberals at least until World War II consistently grounded individual rights in the needs of the larger community.  But liberalism makes sense, Scruton contends,  “only in the social context that conservatism defends” (p.55), a proposition Rosenblatt would likely endorse.

In Scruton’s account, conservatism in the mid-19th century found its natural antithesis not in liberalism but rather in the cluster of movements known as “socialism,” movements that spoke for an emerging working class as the industrial revolution was changing the face of Europe.  For the remainder of the century and into the 20th, conservatives opposed socialist schemes to reform society from top to bottom, whether utopian,  evolutionary, revolutionary or dictatorial.  Scruton’s conservative tradition might therefore be thought of as a flashing yellow light for liberalism – slow down! – and a stark red light for socialism – – stop!!

With conservatism and socialism at odds from the start, one strand of conservatism aligned with what was termed “classical liberalism,” which favored free markets and generally unfettered industrial capitalism.  But another strand, termed “cultural conservatism,” found itself largely in agreement with much of the socialist analysis of the deleterious effects of capitalism.  This strand, which has proved surprisingly enduring, proposed culture as “both the remedy to the loneliness and alienation of industrial society, and the thing most under threat from the new advocates of social reform” (p.82).

Scrtuon, again like Rosenblatt, is at his best when he describes the conservative tradition during the 19th century.  He too seems to run low on fuel when moving into the 20th century, especially the post World War II era.  Readers may be disappointed to find, for example, no analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s contributions to modern conservatism, or the implications of Brexit and the “populism” which purportedly fueled Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a term Scruton scrupulously avoids.

But these voids underscore what I suspect may be Scruton’s main if implicit point: that the key to understanding the conservative tradition lies more in an appreciation of conservative attitudes and dispositions than in comprehending discrete principles or the evolution of thinking over the nearly 2 ½ centuries since the French Revolution.  Scruton acknowledges that conservatives have not always been good in defining or explaining their goals and notes wryly that they “suffer under a burden of disapproval, which they believe comes from their habit of telling the truth, but which their opponents ascribe either to ‘nostalgia’ for an old and misremembered way of life or a failure of compassion toward the new ways of life that are emerging to replace it” (p.154-55).

* * *

Scruton begins by emphasizing the debt that modern conservatism owes to Aristotle, to the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and to the philosophies of such key 17th century thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1677) and John Locke (1632-1704).  But modern conservatism received its first extended articulation in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in November 1790, more than a year after the fall of the Bastille but prior to the execution of King Louis XVI and the advent of the Reign of Terror.  Burke (1729-1797), the Irish-born Whig Parliamentarian whom Scruton considers the “greatest of British conservative thinkers” (p.26), demonstrated in Reflections an “astonishing” ability to “see to the heart of things and to predict the way in which they are bound to go” (p.44).

Burke questioned the revolutionaries’ abstract faith in reason.  He favored a more particularized form of reasoning that emerges “through custom, free exchange and ‘prejudice’” (p.51). To Burke, the revolutionaries in France had failed to take account of the passions and sentiments that govern human character at least as much as reason.  The past to Burke was not something to be discarded and overcome, as the most radical of the revolutionaries seemed to maintain, but rather something to be built upon (among the radicals Burke had in mind was the American Thomas Paine, whose debates with Burke are ably captured in Yuval Levin’s work reviewed here in 2015).

Burke and his Reflections provided modern conservatism – or at least the British version – with a blueprint that defined its distinctive character throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century: a “defence of inheritance against radical innovation, an insistence that the liberation of the individual could not be achieved without the maintenance of customs and institutions that were threatened by the single-minded emphasis on freedom and equality” (p.104).  To be sure, human societies must change over time, but only in the name of “continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have” (p.3).  Burkean conservatism should not therefore be mistaken for political reaction.

The most articulate of the reactionaries, diehard French lawyer and philosopher Joseph Comte de Maistre (1753-1821), defended the divine right of kings, advocated for restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and saw the Enlightenment as a an “insurrection against God” (p.69).  De Maistre spoke for a wide range of ultra-royalists, disaffected nobles and backward-looking Catholics who sought in essence to undo the whole Enlightenment project and restore all that had been swept away by the French Revolution.  Scruton sees in de Maistre’s thinking a “certain remorseless extremism” (p.69) which does not fit comfortably within the conservative tradition he depicts.  Since de Maistre’s time, Scruton argues, conservatism in France has “almost invariably” been connected with a “reverence for the Catholic faith and for France as bearing witness to that faith” (p.71).

In German-speaking lands in the early 19th century, the differences between liberalism and conservatism were placed in sharp focus by debates between the two greatest German-speaking political philsophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  Kant in many ways epitomized the liberal individualism of the Enlightenment, placing the “freely choosing individual into the very center of his world view” and judging “all institutions and procedures in terms of that one idea” (p.56; in a work on the 18th century Enlightenment reviewed here in 2015, Anthony Pagden argued that Kant was the Enlightenment’s single most important thinker).

Hegel by contrast regarded Kant’s freely choosing self as an “empty abstraction. The self does not exist prior to society, but is created in society, through . . . custom, morality and civil association” (p.59).  Hegel found the “roots of legitimate order” (p.70) not only in custom but also in continuity and free association.  In Scruton’s phrase, Hegel “rescued the human individual from the philosophy of individualism” (p.66).

But as conservatives and liberals in the middle decades of the 19th century ruminated over the limitations to the French Revolution’s ideal of liberté , it fell to the aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, one of France’s leading 19th  century liberals, to spell out conservative hesitations over the the revolutionary ideal of égalité.  Tocqueville’s views were shaped by his tour of the United States in the 1830s, as expressed in his classic work, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville considered equality among citizens to be the hallmark of American democracy, although he was aware that the institution of slavery undermined the country’s claims of equality.

Tocqueville wrestled with how equality might be reconciled with liberty in the “increasing absence of the diversity of power that had characterized traditional aristocratic regimes” (p.75).  For Tocqueville, unchecked pursuit of equality breeds loss of individuality that tends, as Scruton puts it, “towards uniformity, and begins to see the eccentric as a threat” (p.76).  Tocqueville was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment is in a position to override the rights of minorities.

Tocqueville was among those mid-19th century liberals who shared conservative anxieties over the rise of the diverse working class movements known as “socialist.”  Conservatives recoiled at what they perceived to be socialism’s “gargantuan schemes for a ‘just’ society, to be promoted by the new kind of managerial state” (p.104).  Socialism for conservatives seemed altogether indifferent if not hostile to the very traditions they revered, and was bent upon undermining the bonds among citizens that they regarded as the glue holding societies together.  Conservative opposition to socialism in all its forms hardened in the 20th century after Vladimir Lenin and his band of Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, leading to a “tyranny yet more murderous than that of the Jacobins in revolutionary France” (p.104).

One conservative response was to align with so-called “classical liberalism,” that strand within liberalism that championed free trade, market capitalism and economic laissez faire.  But not all conservatives found the answer to socialism in laissez faire economics.  Many saw free markets as altogether amoral, exalting individualism and financial profit above the needs of the community.  The “cultural conservatism” that emerged in the mid-19th century included a strong anti-capitalist strain, addressing concerns that the demographic changes brought about by industrialization had detached people from their religious and social roots.

Scruton finds a nascent cultural conservatism in Germany with the thinking of Johann Gottried von Herder (1744-1803), once a student of Immanuel Kant.  Herder posited culture, consisting of “language, custom, folk tales and folk religion,” as the element that “unites human beings in mutual attachment” (p.96).  Herder’s cultural conservatism, Scruton notes, became a “kind of political radicalism, influencing the revolutions of 1848,” in which German speakers “laid claim to a shared identity within boundaries that would bring them together as a single nation state” (p.97).  In Britain, the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was among the earliest cultural conservatives.

Coleridge sought to infuse religion back into society, but was also a strong proponent of increased government assistance for the poor, thereby setting the agenda for “subsequent cultural conservatives who opposed unbridled free market economics” (p.83).  After Coleridge, the cultural conservative banner was carried by the poet and essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900), the essayist Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), and, in the 20th century, by the poems, plays and essays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and the religious reflections of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).  But Scruton’s analysis of the conservative tradition in 20th century Britain revolves primarily around the thinking of three key theorists: lawyer and legal historian Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906), a transition figure from 19th to 20th century conservatism; the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1993), who almost single handedly kept the argument for free market capitalism alive in the mid-20th century; and the complex and often enigmatic political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) who — also almost single handedly — was able to maintain the academic respectability of conservatism in post-World War II Britain.

* * *

In a series of posthumously published lectures, The Constitutional History of England (1908), Maitland contended that the foundations for liberty in Britain lay not in the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution but in the English common law and the tradition of parliamentary representation.   Limited government,  he maintained, had been the rule rather than the exception in England from medieval times onward.  The rights claimed by Britain’s 17th and 18th century theorists in Maitland’s view had always been implied in the English common law.

Half a century later, Hayek linked Maitland’s insights into the English common law with his case for unfettered free market capitalism – for “classical” liberalism — as a further argument against centralized government planning.  In a work published in 1960, The Constitution of Liberty, his second best known work after his 1944 best seller, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek portrayed the English common law as the “heart of English society,” living proof that justice resides in the “transactions between freely associating people and not in the plans of sovereign power” (p.110).  Just as the free market is an example of a “spontaneous order, which arises by an invisible hand from free association,” generating solutions to economic problems “of its own accord,” the common law also generates a “spontaneous legal order, which, because it grows from particular solutions to particular conflicts, inherently tends to restore society to a state of equilibrium” (p.107-08).

Oakeshott attacked the murderous collectivist ideologies of the 20th century — communism, fascism and Nazism — but a part of his argument also applied to Britain and democracies generally: the damage done when politics is directed from above.  Oakeshott mounted an assault on what Scruton terms the “dirigisme” that entered British politics after World War II, in which the state would “manage” not only the economy, but also education, poverty relief, housing, employment, “just about anything on which the well-being and security of the people might seem to depend” (p.114).  Scruton goes on to note that Oakeshott utilized his position as a professor of political philosophy at the London School of Economics (where Hayek also taught) to “build up a network of sympathetic students and colleagues.”  For a while,  the LSE politics department “became a center of conservative resistance to the prevailing socialist consensus” (p.115).

This passage hit me like a thud.  In the late 1960s, I was fortunate to participate in this Oakeshott-led program in political philosophy, which I considered at the time to be a stimulating but relatively obscure academic enterprise.  Scruton even mentions the contributions to conservative thought of my advisor that year – termed “tutor” at LSE – Elie Kedourie, and those of Professor Kenneth Minogue, who was my instructor for an in-depth course on Thomas Hobbes.  In Scruton’s view, Oakeshott’s program in political thought at the LSE bore some resemblance to that of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in the same time period – although it is easier to say “Straussian” than “Oakeshottian” (Strauss and the influence of the Straussians were the subject of a review here in 2015).  None of this even remotely registered with me during an otherwise memorable year at LSE.

But overall, British conservatism since World War II for Scruton has been at best a “fragmentary force on the edge of intellectual life, with little or no connection to politics” (p.127).   Conservatism as the antithesis of socialism and Bolshevism more or less fell with the Berlin wall, and it has had difficulty establishing new moorings.  Today, British conservatism’s main enemies in Scruton’s view are religious extremism, especially an “armed and doctrinaire enemy, in the form of radical Islam” (p.148), the emerging orthodoxy of multi-culturalism, and “political correctness,” that “humorless and relentless policing of language, so as to prevent heretical thoughts from arising” (p.128).  Not by accident, recent intellectual conservatism in Britain has been buttressed by many immigrant voices.  It is the “privilege of the immigré,” Scruton writes, to “speak without irony of the British Empire and of the unique culture, institutions and laws that have made Britain the safe place of refuge for so many in a smoldering world” (p.131).

* * *

The hesitations that are baked into the conservative tradition that Scruton depicts have doubtless served as useful checks on liberal enthusiasm over the past two centuries.  But readers may leave Scruton’s work wondering how these  hesitations fit into today’s cantankerous political debates.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 19, 2020

 

4 Comments

Filed under British History, European History, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History

Liberals, Where Are They Coming From?

 

Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome

To the Twenty-First Century

(Princeton University Press) 

             If you spent any time watching or listening to the political conventions of the two major American parties last month,  you probably did not hear the word “liberal” much, if at all, during the Democratic National Convention.  But you may have heard the word frequently at the Republican National Convention, with liberalism perhaps described as something akin to a “disease or a poison,” or a danger to American “moral values.”  These, however, are not the words of Donald Trump Jr. or Rudy Giuliani, but rather of Helena Rosenblatt, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, in The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (at p.265).  American Democrats, Rosenblatt further notes, avoid using the word “liberal” to describe themselves “for fear that it will render them unelectable” (p.265). What the heck is wrong with being a “liberal”? What is “liberalism” after all?

Rosenblatt argues that we are “muddled” about what we mean by “liberalism”:

People use the term in all sorts of different ways, often unwittingly, sometime intentionally. They talk past each other, precluding any possibility of reasonable debate. It would be good to know what we are speaking about when we speak about liberalism (p.1).

Clarifying the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” is the lofty goal Rosenblatt sets for herself in this ambitious work, a work that at its heart is an etymological stud — a “word history of liberalism” (p.3) — in which she explores how these two terms have evolved in political and social discourse over the centuries, from Roman to present times.

The word “liberal,” Rosenblatt argues, took on an overtly political connotation only in the early 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Up until that time, beginning with the Roman authors Cicero and Seneca, through the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, “liberal” was a word referring to one’s character.  Being “liberal” meant demonstrating the “virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and respecting the importance of mutual connectedness” (p.8-9).  During the 18th century Enlightenment, the educated public began for the first time to speak not only of liberal individuals but also of liberal sentiments, ideas, ways of thinking, even constitutions.

Liberal political principles emerged as part of an effort to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution and to protect them from the forces of extremism — from the revolution’s most radical proponents on one side to its most reactionary opponents on the other.  These principles included support for the broad ideals of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité;” opposition to absolute monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege; and such auxiliary concepts as popular sovereignty, constitutional and representative government, the rule of law and individual rights, particularly freedom of the press and freedom of religion.  Beyond that, what could be considered a liberal principle was “somewhat vague and debatable” (p.52).

Rosenblatt is strongest on how 19th century liberalism evolved, particularly in France and Germany, but also in Great Britain and the United States.  France and French thinkers were the center points in the history of 19th century liberalism, she contends, while Germany’s contributions are “usually underplayed, if not completely ignored” (p.3).  More cursory is her treatment of liberalism in the 20th century, packed into the last two of eight chapters and an epilogue.  The 20th century in her interpretation saw the United States and Great Britain become centers of liberal thinking, eclipsing France and Germany.  But since World War II, she argues, liberalism as defined in America has limited itself narrowly to the protection of individual rights and interests, without the moralism or  dedication to the common good that were at the heart of 19th and early 20th century liberalism.

From the early 19th century through World War II, Rosenblatt insists, liberalism had “nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today.”  For a century and a half, most liberals were “moralists” who “never spoke about rights without stressing duties” (p.4).  People have rights because they have duties.  Liberals rejected the idea that a viable community could be “constructed on the basis of self-interestedness alone” (p.4).  Being a liberal meant “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good” (p.3-4).  The moral content to the political liberalism that emerged after the French Revolution constitutes the “lost” aspect of the history that Rosenblatt seeks to bring to light.

Throughout much of the 19th century, however, being a liberal did not mean being a democrat in the modern sense of the term.  Endorsing popular sovereignty, as did most early liberals, did not mean endorsing universal suffrage.  Voting was a trust, not a right.  Extending suffrage beyond property-holding males was an invitation to mob rule.  Only toward the end of the century did most liberals accept expansion of the franchise, as liberalism gradually became  synonymous with democracy, paving the way for the 20th century term “liberal democracy.”

While 19th century liberalism was often criticized as opposed to religion, Rosenblatt suggests that it would be more accurate to say that it opposed the privileged position of the Catholic Church and aligned more easily with Protestantism, especially some forms emerging in Germany (although a small number of 19th century Catholic thinkers could also claim the term liberal).  But by the middle decades of the 19th century, liberalism’s challenges included not only the opposition of monarchists and the Catholic Church, but also what came to be known as “socialism” — the political movements representing a working class that was “self-conscious, politicized and angry” (p.101) as the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of Europe.

Liberalism’s response to socialism gave rise in the second half of the 19th century to the defining debate over its nature: was liberalism compatible with socialist demands for government intervention in the economy and direct government assistance to the working class and the destitute?  Or were the broad objectives of liberalism better advanced by the policies of economic laissez faire, in which the government avoided intervention in the economy and, as many liberals advocated, rejected what was termed “public charity” in favor of concentrating upon the moral improvement of the working classes and the poor so that they might lift themselves out of poverty?  This debate carried over into the 20th century and, Rosenblatt indicates, is still with us.

* * *

With surprising specificity, Rosenblatt attributes the origins of modern political liberalism to the work of the Swiss couple Benjamin Constant and his partner Madame de Staël, born Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker who served as finance minister to French King Louis XIV (Rosenblatt is also the author of a biography of Constant).  The couple arrived in Paris from Geneva in 1795, a year after the so-called Reign of Terror had ended with the execution of its most prominent advocate, Maximilien Robespierre.  As they reacted to the pressing circumstances brought about by the revolution, Rosenblatt contends, Constant and de Staël formulated the cluster of ideas that collectively came to be known as “liberalism,” although neither ever termed their ideas “liberal.”  Constant, the “first theorist of liberalism” (p.66), argued that it was not the “form of government that mattered,” but rather the amount. “Monarchies and republics could be equally oppressive. It was not to whom you granted political authority that counted, but how much authority you granted.  Political power is dangerously corrupting” (p.66).

Influenced in particular by several German theologians, Constant spoke eloquently about the need for a new and more enlightened version of Protestantism in the liberal state.  Religion was an “essential moralizing force” that “inspired selflessness, high-minded principles, and moral values, all crucial in a liberal society. But it mattered which religion, and it mattered what its relationship was to the state” (p.66).  A liberal government needed to be based upon religious toleration, that is, the removal of all legal disabilities attached to the faith one professed.  Liberalism envisioned strict separation of church and state and what we would today call “secularism,” ideas that placed it in direct conflict with the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century.

Constant and Madame de Staël initially supported Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’état.  They hoped Napoleon would thwart the counterrevolution and consolidate and protect the core liberal principles of the revolution. But as Napoleon placed the authority of the state in his own hands, pursued wars of conquest abroad, and allied himself with the Catholic Church, Constant and Madame de Staël became fervent critics of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

After Napoleon fell from power in 1815, an aggressive counter-attack on liberalism took place in France, led by the Catholic Church, in which liberals were accused of trying to “destroy religion, monarchy, and the family.  They were not just misguided but wicked and sinful.  Peddlers of heresy, they had no belief in duty, no respect for tradition or community.  In the writings of counter-revolutionaries, liberalism became a virtual symbol for atheism, violence, and anarchy” (p.68).  English conservative commentators frequently equated liberalism with Jacobinism.  For these commentators, liberals were “proud, selfish and licentious,” primarily interested in the “unbounded gratification of their passions” while refusing “restraints of any kind” (p.76).

Liberals hopes were buoyed, however, when the  bloodless three day 1830 Revolution in France deposed the ultra-royalist and strongly pro-Catholic Charles X in favor of the less reactionary Louis Philippe.  Among those initially supporting the 1830 Revolution was Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th century France’s most consequential liberal thinker after Constant and Madame de Staël.  Tocqueville famously toured the United States in the 1830s and offered his perspective on the country’s direction in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, followed by his analysis in 1856 of the implications of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Tocqueville shared many of the widespread concerns of his age about democracy, especially its tendency to foster egoism and individualism.  He worried about the masses’ lack of “capacity.” He was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment would be in a position to override the rights and liberties of minorities.  But Tocqueville also foresaw the forward march of democracy and the movement toward equality of all citizens as unstoppable, based primarily upon what he had observed in the United States (although he was aware of how the institution of slavery undermined American claims to be a society of equals).  Tocqueville counseled liberals in France not to try to stop democracy, but, as Rosenblatt puts it, to “instruct and tame” democracy, so that it “did not threaten liberty and devolve into the new kind of despotism France had seen under Napoleon” (p.95).

Tocqueville’s concerns about democracy and “excessive” equality were related to anxieties about how to accommodate the diverse movements that termed themselves socialist.  Initially, Rosenblatt stresses, the term socialist described “anyone who sympathized with the plight of the working poor . . . [T]here was no necessary contradiction between being liberal and being socialist” (p.103).   The great majority of mid-19th liberals, she notes, whether British, French, or German, believed in free circulation of goods, ideas and persons but were “not all that adverse to government intervention” and did not advocate “absolute property rights” (p.114).

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a growing number of British liberals began to favor a “new type of liberalism” that advocated “more government intervention on behalf of the poor.  They called for the state to a take action to eliminate poverty, ignorance and disease, and the excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth .  They began to say that people should be accorded not just freedom, but the conditions of freedom” (p. p.226).   French commentators in the same time period began to urge that a middle way be forged between laissez-faire and socialism, termed “liberal socialism,” where the state became an “instrument of civilization” (p.147).

But it was in 1870s Germany where the debate crystalized between what came to be known as “classical” laissez faire liberalism and the “progressive” version, thanks in large part to the unlikely figure of Otto von Bismarck.   Although no liberal, Bismarck, who masterminded German unification in 1871 and served as the first Chancellor of the newly united nation, instituted a host of sweeping social welfare reforms for workers, including full and comprehensive insurance against sickness, industrial accidents, and disability.  Most historians attribute his social welfare measures to a desire to coopt and destroy the German socialist movement (a point Jonathan Steinberg makes in his masterful Bismarck biography, reviewed here in 2013).

Bismarck’s social welfare measures coincided with an academic assault on economic laissez faire led by a school of “ethical economists,” a small band of German university professors who attacked laissez faire with arguments that were empirical but also moral, based on a view of man as not a “solitary, self-interested individual” but a “social being with ethical obligations “(p.222).  Laissez-faire “allowed for the exploitation of workers and did nothing to remedy endemic poverty,” they contended, “making life worse, not better, for the majority of the inhabitants of industrializing countries” (p.222).  Industrial conditions would “only deteriorate and spread if governments took no action” (p.222).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many young Americans studied in Germany under the ethical economists and their progeny.  They returned to the United States “increasingly certain that laissez-faire was simply wrong, both morally and empirically,” and “began to advocate more government intervention in the economy” (p.226).  On both sides of the Atlantic, liberalism and socialism were drawing closer together, but the debate between laissez faire liberalism and the interventionist version played out primarily on the American side.

* * *

During World War I, Rosenblatt argues, liberalism, democracy and Western civilization became “virtually synonymous,” with America, because of its rising strength, “cast as their principal defender” (p.258).  Germany’s contribution to liberalism was progressively forgotten or pushed aside and the French contribution minimalized.  Two key World War I era American thinkers, Herbert Croly and John Dewy, contended that only the interventionist, or progressive, version of liberalism could claim to be truly liberal.

Croly, cofounder of the flagship progressive magazine The New Republic, delivered a stinging indictment of laissez-faire economics and a strong argument for government intervention in his 1909 work, The Promise of American Life.  By 1914, Croly had begun to call his own ideas liberal, and by mid-1916 the term was in common use in The New Republic as “another way to describe progressive legislation” (p.246).

The philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that there were “two streams” of liberalism.  But one was more humanitarian and therefore open to government intervention and social legislation, while the other was “beholden to big industry, banking, and commerce, and was therefore committed to laissez-faire” (p.261).  American liberalism, Dewey contended, had nothing with laissez-faire, and never had.  Nor did it have anything to do with what was called the “gospel of individualism.”  American liberalism stood for “‘liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.’ Its aim was to promote greater equality and to combat plutocracy with the aid of government” (p.261).

Rosenblatt credits President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with demonstrating how progressive liberalism could work in the political arena. Roosevelt, 20th century America’s most talented liberal practitioner, consistently claimed the moral high ground for liberalism.  He argued that liberals believed in “generosity and social mindedness and were willing to sacrifice for the public good” (p.261).  For Roosevelt, the core of the liberal faith was a belief in the “effectiveness of people helping each other” (p.261). But despite his high-minded advocacy for progressive liberalism – buttressed by his leadership of the country during the Great Depression and in World War II – Roosevelt did not vanquish the argument that economic laissez faire constituted the “true” liberalism.

In 1944, with America at war with Nazi Germany and Roosevelt within months of unprecedented fourth term, the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, published The Road to Serfdom, the 20th century’s most concerted intellectual challenge to the interventionist strand of liberalism.  Any sort of state intervention or “collectivist experiment” threatened individual liberty and put countries on a slippery slope to fascism, Hayek argued in his surprise best seller.  Hayek grounded his arguments in English and American notions of individual freedom.  “Progressive liberalism,” which he considered a contradiction in terms, had its roots in Bismarck’s Germany, he argued, and leads ineluctably to totalitarianism.  “[I]t is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating” (p.268), Hayek warned his British and American readers in 1944.

Although Hayek always insisted that he was a liberal, his ideas became part of the American post World War II conservative argument against both fascism and communism (meanwhile, in France laissez faire economics became synonymous with liberalism; “liberal” is a political epithet in today’s France, but means a free market advocate, diametrically opposed to its American meaning).  During the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War that followed World War II, the interventionist liberalism that Croly and Dewey had preached and Roosevelt had put into practice was labeled “socialist” and even “communist.”  To American conservatives, those who accepted the interventionist version of liberalism were not really liberal; they were “totalitarian.”

* * *

The intellectual climate of the Cold War bred defensiveness in American liberals, Rosenblatt argues, provoking a need to “clarify and accentuate what made their liberalism not totalitarianism. It was in so doing that they toned down their plans for social reconstruction and emphasized, rather, their commitment to defending the rights of individuals” (p.271).  Post World War II American liberalism thus lost “much of its moral core and centuries-long dedication to the public good.  Individualism replaced it as liberals lowered their sights and moderated their goals” (p.271).  In bowing to Cold War realities, American liberals in the second half of the 20th century “willingly adopted the argument traditionally used to malign them . . . that liberalism was, at its core, an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy” (p.273).   Today, Rosenblatt finds, liberals “overwhelmingly stress a commitment to individual rights and choices; they rarely mention duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, or generosity to others” (p.265-66).

Unfortunately, Rosenblatt provides scant elaboration for these provocative propositions, rendering her work incomplete.  A valuable follow up to this enlightening and erudite volume could concentrate on how the term “liberalism” has evolved over the past three quarters of a century, further helping us out of the muddle that surrounds the term.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 7, 2020

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, English History, European History, France, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

Relighting The City of Light

 

Agnès Poirier, Left Bank:

Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950 

(Henry Holt & Co., $30)

             Agnès Poirier, a Paris-born and London-educated journalist, takes on two weighty subjects in Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-1950: Parisian artistic, cultural and intellectual life during what was surely Paris’s darkest 20th century period, the four years of German occupation, 1940-44; and the efforts to restore the City of Light to its former eminence in all things artistic, cultural and intellectual in the remaining years of the turbulent decade.  Her book consists primarily of short anecdotes or vignettes – what she terms a “collage of images” (p.4) — about some of the leading artistic and intellectual personalities in 1940s Paris.  With much emphasis upon the shifting romantic attachments among these personalities, the book has a gossipy flavor.

             The grim occupation years constitute only about a third of Poirier’s narrative.  The book begins to gather momentum when she turns to the second of her two weighty subjects, how artists and intellectuals sought to regain their footing in the second half of the decade.  One of the primary tasks Poirier sets for herself is to capture the euphoria that accompanied the liberation of Paris in 1944 and the end of hostilities the following year.

            Simone de Beauvoir and her life-long partner Jean-Paul Sartre are undoubtedly the book’s lead characters, the personalities Poirier returns to consistently in this collection of anecdotal portraits.  In an appropriate rebalancing from other works on philosophy’s ultimate power couple, Beauvoir receives more attention than Sartre; she is the book’s star.  Behind Sartre in supporting roles are novelists Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler (both Camus and Koestler have been subject of books reviewed on this blog, here and here).   In addition to these four, Poirier provides glimpses of a dizzying number of luminaries who congregated at the Café de Flore and the other Left Bank cafés along or near the Boulevard St. Germain where Beauvoir and Sartre hung out.

            At the outset, Poirier provides a list of 32 individuals who make up the book’s “Cast of Characters” — her “band of brothers and sisters” (p.2), as she terms them, the men and women who appear in the book’s vignettes as we glance at their personalities and interactions in their professional and personal lives. Among the continentals likely to be familiar to readers are Raymond Aron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paulhan, and Simone Signoret.  Irish playwright Samuel Beckett makes several appearances.  There is also a heavy contingent of Americans, including James Baldwin, Sylvia Beach, Saul Bellow, Art Buchwald, Alexander Calder, Miles Davis, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway,  Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Theodore White, and Richard Wright.  They were “budding novelists, philosophers, painters, composers, anthropologists, theorists, artists, photographers, poets, editors, publishers and playwrights” (p.1).  Most were under 40 when the war ended and many either came to Paris from abroad in the post-war period or returned to Paris after taking refuge elsewhere during the war years.

            Together, Poirier’s band of brothers and sisters:

founded the New Journalism, which . . . forever blurred the lines between literature and reportage. Poets and playwright slowly buried Surrealism and invented the Theater of the Absurd; budding painters transcended Socialist Realism, pushed Geometric Abstraction to its limits, and fostered Action Painting.  Philosophers founded new schools of thought such as Existentialism . . . Aspiring writers found their voices in Paris’s gutters and the decrepit student rooms of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, while others invented the nouveau roman.  Photographers reclaimed their authorship through photojournalism agencies . . . black [American] jazz musicians, fleeing segregation at home, found consecration in the concert halls and jazz clubs of Paris, where New Orleans jazz received its long-overdue appreciation while bebop was bubbling up (p.2).

            Despite this range of creativity and artistic output, Poirier argues that after 1944 “everything was political” in Paris (p.2).  Among Left Bank denizens, there was a near-universal conviction that France desperately needed an independent, social democratic political movement.  Such a movement would challenge not only the Communist Party that dominated the post-war French political landscape but also the hyper-nationalist Gaullist movement that was the Communists’ main rival and the American free-market capitalist model that hovered in the background.

            The elusive quest for an independent political movement constitutes one of two threads that tie together the book’s vignettes and elevate the text to something more than a series of gossipy anecdotes.  The second is Beauvoir herself, especially the development of her seminal work, The Second Sex, and how she became a model of female emancipation, breaking social conventions by combining intellectual ambition, financial independence and sexual freedom.

* * *

            Poirier’s vignettes begin before the German occupation and follow a rough chronological order.  She provides some sense of how Parisian artists and intellectuals survived the war years.  A deeper and more satisfying study of Parisian artistic and cultural life during the occupation may be found in Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012.  As in Riding’s book, Poirier delves into France’s pained efforts to decide how to come to terms with these dark years, and how writers, artists, and intellectuals fared after the war in a process termed épuration, best translated as “purification.”

            Epuration in Poirier’s view amounted to little more than an entire nation adopting the fiction that almost everyone had been part of the resistance during the occupation, with Charles de Gaulle willing to go along and even encourage this fiction as the most effective means to reunite a divided and demoralized nation.  But she characterizes the épuration process as a “murky affair, and the discrepancy in punishments opened up a national debate on the nature of revenge and justice.  Never more public than among writers and journalists, the debate tore friends apart” (p.74).

            One writer, Robert Brasillach, who had collaborated with the Nazi and Vichy governments, was executed, notwithstanding petitions signed by Sartre, Camus and other writers who abhorred Brasillach’s political convictions yet pleaded to spare his life.   Every other writer with collaborationist tendencies avoided this fate.  Poirier wryly notes the generosity underlying the épuration process, which seemed designed to demonstrate that it was “never too late to be a patriot” (p.71).  Those French men and women who had lived through the four years of the occupation “with the shame of the armistice but had not had the courage to join the Resistance or go to London seized the opportunity to clear their conscience” (p.71).  As Beauvoir observed, the joie de vivre which liberation generated was “tempered by the shame of having survived” (p.76).

            Poirier earnestly seeks to capture that tempered joie de vivre.  As Paris’s galleries, boulevards, jazz clubs, cafés, bistros, and bookshops returned to life, the city’s intellectuals and artists were, she writes, eager to unleash their “unquenchable thirst for freedom in every aspect of their lives.  Whether born into the working class or the bourgeoisie, they wanted little to do with their caste’s traditions and conventions or with propriety. Family was an institution to be banished, children a plague to avoid at all costs” (p.116).  It was, Poirier writes, a time to “stare at the reality with lucidity in order to change it” (p.95), a time to “experiment with life, love, and ideas, to throw away conventions, to reinvent oneself, and to reenchante the world” (p.95).

            It was also a time of sexual liberation, for women as much as men, Poirier emphasizes, with a high percentage of assertive bi-sexual women and “female Don Juans” (p.3) among the book’s cast of characters.  In post-war Paris, where such traditional categories as race and religion were deemed inconsequential, gender still counted. “Only the strongest of women survived,” Poirier writes, but those who did “shook the old male order.” Using their “wizardry with words, images, and concepts,” Left Bank women “revolutionized not only philosophy and literature but also film and modern art” (p.288-89).  The romantic interactions among the band of brothers and sisters, a theme to which Poirier returns consistently, were multiple and complicated, none more so than those involving Beauvoir herself.

            By 1944, Beauvoir and Sartre were more like business partners, writing and generating ideas together while pursuing romantic interests independently (not unlike Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; see Jospeh Lelyveld’s His Final Battle: The Last Six Months of Franklin Roosevelt, reviewed here in March 2017).  Beauvoir’s interests included both Koestler and Camus.  Beauvoir was attracted to Koestler upon reading the initial proofs of his signature novel, Darkness at Noon.   Poirier describes in some detail one intensive soirée the couple spent together, perhaps their only one, after which Beauvoir concluded that Koestler was a “violent and impulsive man, a world-weary seducer” (p.122).

            The electricity between Beauvoir and Camus lasted longer although, we learn, Camus was frightened by Beauvoir’s intelligence.  Beauvoir, by contrast, had “no reservations about [Camus].  Nothing in him could turn her off, except perhaps his moralizing” (p.120).  Poirier also pays close attention to Beauvoir’s most sustained and deepest heterosexual relationship in the post-war period, with American writer Nelson Algren.  During her affair with Algren, Beauvoir appears to have ceased liaisons with countless younger women, many of whom Sartre also pursued.

            Both Sartre and Camus “often fell for pretty students and groupies.  It was easy, Poirier writes. ” Those young lovers were enthusiastic, malleable, a little naïve perhaps, and would recover in no time once the affair with the great man had ended” (p.120).  The two men, at different times, also pursued Koestler’s girlfriend and wife-to-be Mamaine Paget, while Koestler was ranging  widely among the Left Bank female contingent.  One of Koestler’s liaisons was with Dominique Aury, who translated some of Koestler’s articles into French.

            Poirier describes Aury as a “seductress, a conqueror of both men and women [who] knew how to snare her prey” (p.125).  Aury’s most intriguing relationship was with not Koestler but Édith Thomas, a relationship Aury struck up after leaving an unidentified man whom Poirier speculates might have been Camus.  Both Aury and Thomas had been part of the resistance during the war.  Aury was from a traditional, right-wing Catholic family; Thomas,  a published novelist, was  a member of the Communist Party. Despite these differences, they shared a “passion that would transport Édith to a state of delirious ecstasy” (p.127).  But Aury, a “born huntress” who after passion subsided “always chased other prey” (p.125), ended the affair with Thomas for another with a married man, famed publisher and literary critic Jean Paulhan, leaving Thomas with a sense of betrayal she never got over.  And so it went on the Left Bank.

            Amidst the musical beds, Sartre and Camus endeavored to establish a social democratic alternative to the Communist party.  By 1946, the first full year after the war, France’s leading political parties were the Communists and the Gaullists. The non-Communist Socialist Party was too splintered to be a force attractive to Parisian artists or intellectuals.  Nor were they attracted to the bourgeois nationalism and cautious reformism of the Gaullists. The French Communist Party’s association with wartime resistance, moreover, gave it a huge advantage with the public.

            The “terrible and deep guilt felt by so many French people who did not take part in active résistance against the Nazi occupiers meant that they could not and would not criticize the Communists, the most active members of the French Resistance” (p.158).  With a “kind of spiritual power over the youth and the intelligentsia,” the Communist party was for many a “conscience, and a magnet” (p.138).  The party was “intent on invading every nook and cranny of public life” (p.138).  It received a jolt of positive energy when Picasso officially joined in 1944.

            Few Left Bank artists or intellectuals followed Picasso’s example, although in Poirier’s view most saw Communism, on balance and in theory, as preferable to capitalism.  Beauvoir and Sartre certainly felt the tug of the party’s appeal, but were not ready to “bargain their freedom, espirit critique, and independence for the sake of acceptance into the Communist fold” (p.143).  Although Camus and Koestler had both flirted with Communism in their younger days, by 1946 they were among the Left Bank’s most vocal anti-Communists.  

            Camus had credibility as having been an active member of the resistance (Sartre, by contrast, was as an “armchair” resistant although he had been jailed during the war, p.67).  Koestler, even more firmly anti-Communist, leaned toward the Gaullists and tried with limited success to convince his Left Bank associates that there was “no greater threat in Europe than Communism” (p.153).  Although the Left Bank denizens may have been clashing among themselves at the Café de Flore and elsewhere over arcane philosophical and historical implications of Marxism and Communism, the Party, hardly into nuance, “put them all in the same bag” (p.160) as traitors. The influential French Communist press “used all their might to promote their ideology and to attack all those who did not think like them, including Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir” (p.77).

            Poirier credits Camus with having a vision for a political alternative. Rather than promote a “tired compromise between left and right,” Camus “dreamt of a humanist socialism, of new boldness in politics, a fresh, harsh and pure new elite coming from the Resistance to rule over an old country.   He dreamt of social justice and of individual freedoms” (p.136-37).   But it fell to Sartre to take concrete steps toward building a new political party, the Rassemblement Démocratique et Revolutionnaire (the Democratic and Revolutionary Alliance or RDR), which he co-founded in 1948 with novelist David Rousset.

            The RDR’s aim was to unite the non-Communist Left and promote an independent Europe as a bridge between the Soviet and American blocs. The RDR opened to a big splash, with the public support of Camus.   But the party never really got off the ground.  The cantankerous Left Bank intellectuals “proved too heterogeneous a mélange to speak with one strong voice” (p.157) on the notion of a third force that would be hostile to both the Gaullists and the Communists. The inglorious end of the RDR prompted Sartre to withdraw from political activism.  “No more party membership. From now on, there would be only literature” (p.265).

            Beauvoir lent little support to Sartre’s RDR project. She was feverishly at work at what had started as a short essay and grew into the voluminous The Second Sex (Le deuxième sexe in French), as well as deeply involved with Nelson Algren.  The Second Sex, a meticulously researched and easily accessible work, sought to demonstrate “how men oppress women” (p.285).  Looking at biology, psychoanalysis, and history, Beauvoir found “numerous examples of women’s ‘inferiority’ taken for granted but never had she found a convincing justification for it” (p.285).  Poirier summarizes Beauvoir’s composite portrait of women as:

conditioned by society into accepting a passive, dependent, objectified existence, deprived as they are of subjectivity and the ambition to emancipate themselves through financial independence and work. Whether daughter, wife, mother, or prostitute, women are made to conform to stereotypes imposed by men . . . [O]nly through work, and thus economic independence, can women obtain autonomy and freedom (p.286)

             The Second Sex’s brilliance lay in Beauvoir’s “rigorous intellectual approach combined with a cool and superbly concisely style” (p.132). Beauvoir “at last” was “considered worldwide an equal to Sartre and Camus” (p.285).

* * *

            Poirier indicates at the outset that Left Bank is not an “academic analysis” (p.4), to which she could have added that the book is not a conventional history either.  Herein lies the primary reason why,  despite its weighty subject matter, the book fell short of my expectations.  While Poirier’s anecdotal portraits of the leading lights in Paris during a fraught decade make for entertaining reading, they don’t add up to a portrait of the city itself during the decade.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 26, 2019

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics

A Tale of Three Cities’ Spaces and Places

Mike Rapport, The Unruly City:

Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution

In The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution, Mike Rapport, professor of modern European history at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, provides a novel look at three urban centers in the last quarter of the 18th century: Paris, London and New York.  As the title indicates, the century’s last quarter was the age of revolution: in America at the beginning of the approximate 25-year period, as the 13 American colonies fought for their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America; followed by the French Revolution in the next decade, which ended monarchial rule, abolished most privileges of the aristocracy and clergy, and uprooted deep-rooted social and cultural norms.  Great Britain somehow avoided any such an upheaval during this time, and that is one of the main points of the story. 

But radical democratic movements were afoot in all three countries, favoring greater equality, a drastically expanded franchise and opposition to entrenched privilege  – objectives overlapping with but not identical to those of the revolutions in America and France.  How these democratic impulses played out in each city is the real core of Rapport’s story — or, more precisely, how these impulses played out in each city’s spaces and places.  In examining the contribution of each city’s topography – its spaces and places — to political outcomes, Rapport utilizes a “bottom up” approach which emphasizes the roles played by each city’s artisans, small shopkeepers, and everyday working people as they struggled against entrenched elites.  Rapport thus brings the perspective of an urban geographer and demographer to his story.  But there is also a geo-political angle that needs to be factored into the story. 

The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, in which France and its archenemy Britain vied between 1756 and 1763 for control of large swaths of the American continent, ended in ignominious defeat for France.  But both Britain and France emerged from the war with staggeringly high debts, triggering financial crises in both countries.  A decade and a half later, in 1777, monarchial France lent assistance to the American colonies as they broke away from Britain.  The newly formed United States of America in turn largely supported the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789, and sided with revolutionary France when it found itself again at war with Britain in 1792.  Rapport’s topographical approach, with its concentration on the cityscapes of Paris, London and New York, provides a fresh perspective to these familiar late 18th century events.

In the final quarter of the 18th century, Paris and London were sprawling nerve centers of venerable, centuries-old civilizations, while New York was far smaller, far younger, and not quite the nerve center of an emerging New World civilization.  In 1790, moreover, in the middle of Rapport’s story, New York lost its short-lived position as the political capital of the newly created United States of America.  But Paris was different from both New York and London in ways that are consequential for this multi-layered, complex and ambitious tale of three cities. 

Although France’s revolution was nation-wide, its course was dictated by events in Paris in a manner altogether different from the way the American Revolution unfolded in New York.  France in the last quarter of the 18th century lived under a monarchy described alternatively as “despotic” and “absolute.”  It benefitted from nothing quite comparable to America and Britain’s shared heritage from England’s 1688 “Glorious Revolution,” which established critical individual rights and checks upon monarchial power, all of which were “jealously defended by British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic and enviously coveted by educated, progressive Frenchmen and -women” (p.xv). Democratic radicalism in France thus had an altogether different starting point from that in America or Britain, one of the reasons radicalism fused with revolutionary fervor in France in a way it never did in either America or Britain.  These divergences between France on the one hand and America and Britain on the other help explain why Rapport’s emphasis on urban spaces and places serving political ends works best in Paris.   

Rapport resolutely links phases of the French Revolution to discrete Parisian spaces and places: giving impetus to the revolution’s early stages were the Palais-Royal, a formerly aristocratic enclave on the Right Bank, and the artisanal district of the Faubourg St. Antoine, located just east of the hulking Bastille fortress; Paris’ central market, Les Halles, and the Cordeliers district, centered around today’s Placed de l’Odéon on the Left Bank, sustained the revolution’s more radical stages.  The distinct character of these sections of Paris, Rapport writes, goes “a long way to explain how the events unfolded and where much of the revolutionary impulse came from.”  Their geographical and social makeup made Paris a “truly revolutionary city, with a popular militancy that kept politics on the boil with each new crisis.  This combination of geography, social structure and political activism distinguished the Parisian experience from that of London and New York” (p.202). 

When he moves from revolutionary Paris to New York and London, Rapport’s urban topographical approach seems comparatively flat and somewhat forced.  He shows how New York’s Common, located near the city’s northern limits in today’s lower Manhattan, became the focal point for the city’s’ rising democratic fervor and its resistance to British rule.  In London, he focuses upon St. George’s Field, functionally similar to New York’s Common as a location where large groups from all walks of life and all parts of the metropolis gathered freely.  St. George’s Field, which today encompasses Waterloo Station, became the center of mass demonstrations in support of democratic radical John Wilkes, who was jailed for seditious libel in a prison overlooking this largely undeveloped, semi-rural expanse.   But the most compelling story for New York and London is how the democratic energy in the two cities stopped short of the thorough social and cultural uprooting of the French Revolution, much to the relief of elites in both cities.     

* * *

By the fateful year of 1789, Paris’ Palais-Royal, then an “elegant complex of colonnades, arcades, gardens, fountains, apartments, theatres, offices and boutiques” (p.127), had become a combative pubic gathering place where journalists and orators “intellectually pummeled, ideologically bludgeoned and rhetorically battered the old order” (p.125).  Questions involving royal despotism and the rights of citizens were debated and discussed across Paris and throughout France, but “nowhere did these great questions generate more white hot fervor than in the Palais-Royal”(p.127).  The Palais-Royal gave political voice to the insurrection against the monarchy and inherited privilege that broke out in Paris in the spring of 1789 and spread nation-wide.  Without the “contentious cauldron” of the Palais-Royal, Rapport concludes, it is “hard to imagine the insurrection unfolding as it did – and even having the revolutionary results that it did” (p.145),

The Faubourg St. Antoine contributed “special vigor” (p.126) to the 1789 uprising, which resulted in a transfer of power from the King to an elected chamber, the National Assembly, and the subsequent July 1789 assault on the Bastille. An artisanal district famous for its furniture and cabinet makers, Faubourg St. Antoine’s topography and location, Rapport writes, made the neighborhood “especially militant” (p.137) because it was conscious of being outside the old limits of the city.  There was nothing in either New York or London to match the Faubourg’s “geographical cohesion, its homogeneity, its separateness and its defensiveness” (p.137). In Faubourg St. Antoine, a political uprising became a social and cultural upheaval as well.  As “bricks and mortar places,” Rapport writes, both the Palais-Royal and the Faubourg St. Antoine had a “material impact on the shape and outcome of events” and played outsized roles in marking the “final crisis of the old order” (p.126),

As the revolution became more radical, the central market of Les Halles, “the belly of Paris,” also played an outsized role.  Les Halles was the largest and most popular of several Parisian markets.  Its particular culture and geographic location gave Les Halles a “revolutionary dynamism” (p.177) that bound together those who lived and worked there, especially women.  A coordinated women’s march, fueled by food shortages throughout Paris, emanated from Faubourg St. Antoine and Les Halles in October 1789.  The march ended in Versailles, where the women invaded the National Assembly and gained an audience with King Louis XVI.  The King agreed to give his royal sanction to a series of revolutionary demands and, more to the point, promised that Paris would be supplied with bread.  Later the same day, the women forced the King and his family to return to Paris, where they lived as virtual hostages in a city whose women had “demonstrated their determination to keep the Revolution on track” (p.183).

In the aftermath of the march, the National Assembly, instilled by fear of the “unpredictable, uncontrollable force of popular insurrection” (p.185-86), restricted the vote to “active” citizens, adult males who paid a set level of taxes, only about one-half of France’s male population.  The subsequent move to expand the franchise in 1789-90 originated in the Cordeliers district, an “effervescent combination of an already articulate, politicized artisanal population, combined with the concentration of a sympathetic radical leadership” (p.188).  After Lucille and Camille Desmoulins, husband-and-wife journalists from the district, wrote an important article in which they attacked the restriction of the franchise – “What is this much repeated word active citizen supposed to mean?  The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille” (p.190) – the Cordelier district assembly in June 1790 proposed that all males who paid “any tax whatsoever, including indirect taxes, which included just about everybody, should have ‘active’ citizenship” (p.188-89; notwithstanding the thorough uprooting of the French Revolution, there was no move to extend the franchise to women).   

The Cordeliers district narrowed the political divide between social classes in no small part because of the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, founded in the heart of the district.  Made up of merchants, artisans, tradesmen, retailers and radical lawyers, the Society also encouraged women to attend its sessions.  It saw its primary purpose as “rooting out the threats to the Revolution” and “challenging the limits placed on political rights by the emerging constitutional order” (p.191).  Its influence “rested in its distinctly metropolitan reach” and in having its roots in a neighborhood whose “social and political character made it a linchpin binding the axle of middle-class radicalism to the wheels of popular revolutionary activism” (p.195-96).  As the revolution entered its most radical phases, the Cordeliers district proved to be “one of the epicenters of the metropolitan outburst,” unlike any other district in Paris, bridging the “social gap between the radical middle-class leadership of the burgeoning democratic movement and the militants of the city’s working population” (p.195).    

            No specific Parisian neighborhoods are linked to the turn that the Revolution took in 1793-94 known as the Terror, “synonymous with the ghastly mechanics of the guillotine” (p.223).  This phase occurred at a time of multiple crises, when the newly declared French Republic grasped at repressive and draconian means to defend itself.  Driven by the  “blunt, direct and violent”  (p.226-27) radicals who called themselves sans-culottes (literally, those “without breeches”), the Terror was the period that saw King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette executed, followed by a chilling string of prominent figures deemed “enemies of the revolution” (among them prior revolutionary leaders Maximilian Robespierre and Georges-Jacques Danton, along with Cordelier journalist Camille Desmoulins).  Rapport’s chilling chapter on this phase serves as a reminder of the perils of excessive revolutionary zeal.

Throughout the Revolution, all sections of Paris felt its physical effects in the adaptation of buildings for the multitude of institutions of the new civic order. The process of taking over buildings in every quarter of Paris  — churches, offices, barracks and mansions — not only “made the Revolution more visible, indeed more intrusive, than ever before, but also represented the physical advance of the revolutionary organs deeper in the neighborhoods and communities of the capital” (p.226).  The “physical transformation of interiors, the adaptation of internal spaces and the embellishment of the buildings with revolutionary symbols, reflected the radicalism of the French Revolution in constructing an egalitarian order in an environment that had grown organically out of corporate society based on privilege and royal absolutism” (p.310).  In New York, the physical transformation of the city was not so thoroughgoing, “since the American Revolution did not constitute quite such a break with the past” (p.171).     

* * *

New York in the late 18th century was already an important business center, the major gateway into the New World for trade and commerce from abroad, with a handful of powerful, well-connected families dominating the city’s politics.  Although its population was a modest 30,000, diminutive in comparison to London and Paris, it was among the world’s most heterogeneous cites.  In its revolutionary years, New York witnessed what Rapport terms a “dual revolution,” both a “broad coalition of colonists against British rule” and a “revolt of the people against the elites,” which blended “imperial, local and popular politics in an explosive mix” (p.2). The contest between the “people of property” and the “mob” was about the “future forms of government, whether it should be founded upon aristocratic or democratic principles” (p. p.28-29), in the words of a future New York Senator.

The tumultuous period that ended with independence in 1783 began when Britain sought to raise money to pay for the Seven Years War through the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a duty on all legal documents (e.g., deeds, wills, licenses, contracts), the first direct tax Britain had imposed on its American colonies.  Triggered by resistance to the Stamp Act, the dual American revolution in the years leading up to war between the colonies and Britain moved in New York from sites controlled by the city’s elites, especially the debating chambers of City Hall, to sites more accessible to the public, in particular the open space known as the Common, along with the city’s taverns and the streets themselves. 

More than just a public space, the Common was “also a site where the power of the state, in all its ominous brutality, was on display” (p.18).  Barracks to house British troops had been erected on the Common during the Seven Years War, and it was the site of public executions.  It was on the Commons that the Liberty Pole, the mast of a pine ship, was erected and became the city’s most conspicuous symbol of resistance, a “deliberate, defiant counterpoise” (p.18) to British state authority.  The first Liberty Pole was hacked down in August 1766, only to be replaced in the following days.  This pattern repeated itself several times, as the Common became the most politically charged place in New York, where a more militant, popular form of politics emerged to challenge the ruling elites.

  It was on the Common, at the foot of the Liberty Pole that New Yorkers received the news in April 1775 that war with the British had broken out in New England.  In 1776, George Washington announced the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence on the same site. During the war for independence, the Liberty Pole became the symbolic site where people declared their support for independence – or, in many cases, were compelled to do so.     

In 1789, after the American colonies had won independence from Britain, the Common served as the start and end point of a massive parade through New York City in support of a proposed constitution to govern the country now known as the United States of America, at a time when the entire State of New York was wrestling with the decision whether to become the last state to ratify the proposed constitution.  The choice of the Common as the parade’s start and end point was, Rapport writes, highly symbolic, “connecting the struggle for the Constitution with the earlier battles around the Liberty Pole” (p.162).  Dominated by the city’s tradesmen and craft workers, the parade was a “tour of artisanal force” that “connected the Constitution with the commercial prosperity upon which the city and its working people depended,” serving as a reminder to the city’s elites that the revolution had “not just secured independence, but [had also] mobilized and empowered the people”(p.163).

The parade from the Common through New York’s streets also demonstrated the degree to which democratic radicalism in New York had been tempered.  The city’s radicals, aware that New York’s prosperity depended upon good commercial relations and a thriving mercantile community, “reached beyond mere vengeance and aimed at forging a more equal democracy, in which the overmighty power of the wealthy and the privileged would be cut down to size, allowing artisans and ‘mechanics’ to enjoy the democratic freedoms that they had done so much to secure” (p.156). 

With their vested interest in the financial and commercial prosperity of the city, New York’s radicals were not yet ready to call for “leveling,” or “social equality,” among the greatest concerns to the city’s privileged classes.  In London, too, democratic radicalism stopped short of a full-scale challenge to the social order. 

* * *

While Britain was attempting to rein in America’s rebellious colonies, a movement for democratic reform emerged in London, centered on parliamentary reform and expansion of the suffrage.  The movement’s unlikely leader was journalist and parliamentarian John Wilkes, who symbolized “defiance towards the elites and the overbearing authority of the eighteenth-century British state” (p.35).  The liberties that Wilkes defended began with those specific to the City, a small and nearly autonomous enclave within metropolitan London.  Known today as London’s financial district, the City in the latter half of the 18th century was a “lively hub of activity of all kinds, not just finance but also highly skilled artisans, printers and merchants plying their trades” (p.37).  It had its own police constables and enjoyed privileges unavailable elsewhere in London, including direct access to King and parliament. 

Wilkes, writing “inflammatory satire,” excoriated the government and campaigned for an expansion of voting rights with a mixture of “irony, humor and vitriol” (p.42).  Wilkes tied his in-your-face radicalism to a defense of the traditional liberties and power of the City.  But his radicalism caused him to be expelled from the House of Commons, then tried and convicted of seditious libel.  For London’s working people, Wilkes became “another victim of a harsh, unforgiving system that seemed staked in favor of the elites” (p.51).  Wilkes was jailed in a prison that overlooked St. George’s Fields, London’s undeveloped, semi-rural gathering point on the opposite side of the River Thames from the City.  St. George’s Fields came to represent symbolically a “departure from the narrow defense of the City’s privileges towards a broader demand for a national politics more responsive to the aspirations of the people at large” (p.44).   

When authorities failed to release Wilkes on an anticipated date in 1768, a major riot broke out in St. George’s Fields in which seven people were killed.  Mobilization on St. George’s Fields on behalf of Wilkes, Rapport writes,  “brought thousands of London’s working population into politics for the first time, people who had little or no stake in the traditional liberties of the City, let alone a vote in parliamentary elections, but who saw in Wilkes’s defiance of authority a mirror of their own daily struggle for self-respect and dignity in the face of the overbearing power of the state and the social dominance of the elites” (p.44).

Once freed, Wilkes went on to be elected Lord Mayor of the City in 1774 and chosen also to represent suburban Middlesex in Parliament.  Two years later he was pushing the altogether radical notion of universal male suffrage. But, rather than attacking the privileges of the City, the movement in support of Wilkes fused with a defense of the City.  This fusion, in Rapport’s view, “may be one reason the resistance to authority in London, though certainly riotous, did not become revolutionary . . . Londoners were able to make their protests without challenging the wider structure of politics” (p.52-53).   By coalescing around the figure of John Wilkes, the popular mobilization “reinforced rather than challenged the privileges that empowered the City to resist the king and Parliament” (p.56).

As revolution raged on the other side of the English Channel after 1789, many in London believed that that Britain’s 1688 revolution “had already secured many basic rights and freedoms for British subjects; the French were starting from zero” (p.257).  Arguments about the French revolution and criticisms and defense of the British constitution were kept within legal boundaries in London.  It was the British habit of free discussion, Rapport concludes, “alongside, first, the commitment to legality among the reformers and, second, the relative caution with which . . . the government proceeded against them that ensured that London avoided a revolutionary upheaval in these years” (p.221).

* * *

Rapport sets a dauntingly intricate task for himself in seeking to demonstrate how the artisanal and working class populations of Paris, New York and London used each city’s spaces and places to abet radical democratic ideas.   How those spaces and places helped shape revolutionary events in Paris from 1789 onward and thereby transformed the city are the best portions of his work, insightful and at times riveting.  His treatment of New York and London, where no such physical transformation occurred, has less zest.  But the tale of three cities comes together through Rapport’s detailing of moments in each place when “thousands of people, often for the first time, seized the initiative and tried to shape their own political futures” (p.317).

* * *

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C. USA

December 31, 2018

2 Comments

Filed under British History, French History, History, United States History

Inside the Mind and Time of Victor Hugo

 

 

 

David Bellos, The Novel of the Century:

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables 

            When first published on April 4, 1862, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was an immediate best seller – in today’s parlance, a “blockbuster” but also, at 1,900 pages in the original French, a “doorstopper” (the English translation was a mere 1,500 pages).  Hugo in 1862 was among France’s most revered writers, but was then living in exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, having fled several years earlier from what he considered the dictatorial regime of Louis-Napoléon, better known as Napoléon III.  Hugo intended Les Misérables, his epic tale of reconciliation and redemption, with its searing portraits of the poor and those at society’s margins, to be the culmination of his already illustrious career as a novelist, poet and playwright.  It didn’t take long after Les Misérables’ initial publication for Hugo to conclude that his novel would easily meet his lofty aspirations.

             Over a century and half later, Hugo’s Les Misérables remains in the forefront of literary classics, still read in the original French and in countless translations in all the world’s major languages.  Within weeks of its publication, moreover, Les Misérables was turned into a play, and in the 20th century became the subject of more adaptations for radio, stage and screen than any just about any other literary work.  But David Bellos, professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, worries that Les Misérables’ extraordinary staying power and its enduring mass market appeal has led too many to dismiss the novel as a work that falls below the level of great art.

            In The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, Bellos seeks to dispel such notions by getting inside Victor Hugo’s mind and his time as he pieced together Les Misérables.   Much like Alice Kaplan’s Looking For “The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, reviewed here in April, Bellos’ work could be considered a “biography of a book.”  In an introductory chapter, “The Journey of Les Misérables,” Bellos provides an overview to the novel, its setting and its multiple twists and improbable turns, all highly useful for readers who have not read the novel for several years if at all.

       Here he introduces the novel’s principal characters: Jean Valjean, famously sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whose twenty-year quest to rehabilitate himself constitutes the novel’s “narrative backbone” (p.xviii); Fantine, an abandoned single mother who loses her job, falls into prostitution and meets an early death; her illegitimate daughter Cosette, entrusted to Valjean’s care after her mother’s death; Javert, the policeman who pursues Valjean relentlessly throughout the novel; the inn-keeping couple the Thénardiers, and their urchin children, Éponine and Gavroche; and Marius, a student and budding political activist who falls in love with Cosette.

              Les Misérables consists of five parts, with 48 “books” (Bellos too has divided his work into five parts, surely not coincidentally).  Hugo’s Part I is entitled “Fantine;” Part II, “Cosette,” in which the young girl is saved by Valjean from cruel foster parents after her mother’s death; Part III, “Marius,” focusing on the student’s life on the barricades in his fight to overcome the monarchy; Part IV, “The Idyll of Rue Plumer and the Epic of Rue Saint Denis,” two Parisian streets, the first where the love affair of Cosette and Marius blossomed, the second where Marius fought in a political barricade; and Part V, simply “Jean Valjean.”  Each of the 48 books has chapters, 365 in all.  With many of the chapters quite short, Bellos suggests a chapter per day over the course of a year for those who want to read or reread the novel.

               The individuals who surrounded Hugo as he wrote Les Misérables loom as large in Bellos’ work as the characters in the novel itself.   Hugo and his wife Adèle Foucher had five children, the first of whom died in infancy.  Their oldest daughter Léopoldine died in a boating accident at age 19, the “gravest emotional wound in Hugo’s life “ (p.98). Their last child, daughter Adèle, kept a diary from an early age that provides a major portion of the record about the evolution of Les Misérables,.  Adèle was in the forefront of an innovative campaign to market the novel across Europe (her unrequited love for a British military officer was the subject of the 1975 François Trauffaut film, The Story of Adèle H).  Hugo’s older son Charles also played a major role in arranging for publication of Les Misérables, while younger son François-Victor became a literary heavyweight in his own right through his translations into French of the major works of Shakespeare.

           An additional presence throughout Bellos’ account is Hugo’s long-term  mistress, Juliette Drout, an aspiring actress who followed Hugo into exile.  While living in quarters separate from the Hugo family, Juliette became Hugo’s regular traveling companion and served informally as his secretary and confidante (Juliette was traveling with Hugo when he learned of daughter Léopoldine’s death).  But Bellos adds that Hugo was a “serial philanderer” (p.30), with ample supplements to his on-going extra-marital liaison with Juliette and his legal attachment to wife Adèle.

          Les Misérables begins in 1815 and extends to 1835.  Hugo wrote the novel in fits and starts between 1845 and 1862.  The period between 1815 and 1862 encompasses some of the most dramatic upheavals of France’s turbulent and often violent 19th century.  The final defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo and the “Bourbon restoration” of Louis XVIII as a constitutional monarch took place in the fateful year 1815.  By 1862, France was in the midst of the “Second Empire” of Louis-Napoléon (Napoléon III), the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, who in a coup d’etat in 1851 had ended France’s Second Republic, the event that sent Hugo into exile.  In addition to the 1851 coup, the first half of the century witnessed periodic uprisings against the government, among them: the 1830 “July Revolution,” which ousted Louis XVIII’s successor Charles X in favor of Louis-Philippe d’Orleans; a mini-1832 rebellion which unsuccessfully sought to reverse the 1830 July Revolution, an uprising critical to Hugo’s novel but less so to French history; and the February 1848 revolution in which Louis-Napoléon deposed Louis-Philippe and established the Second French Republic, an uprising in which Hugo was directly involved.

            Bellos’ account shines in its illumination of how these events and the broader currents of 19th century French history affected both Hugo himself and the novel he was working on.  To enhance our understanding of the novel and its seventeen year gestation period, Bellos includes what he terms “interludes,” short digressions on diverse but pragmatic subjects, such as regional and class differences in language in Hugo’s time; money and credit in 19th century France; intellectual property protection and the technical process involved in publishing books in the mid-19th century; and transportation in the time of Les Misérables (people walked a lot more then than they do today).  Bellos also delves into how Hugo’s political and religious views entered into his novel.

            Although Les Misérables is a “progressive” work which “surely expresses moral outrage at the plight of the poor,” (p.219), Bellos cautions that it should not be considered a tract for the emerging views of the European left.  Subtly, however, the novel traced out a “limited if still ambitious program of social action” (p.202-03): more humane criminal justice, with easier entry back into society for offenders, more education, and more jobs for the uneducated.  Hugo, who had never been baptized and did not subscribe to any established religion or cult, considered Les Misérables to be a religious but not Catholic work.  Hugo’s novel argues for “natural religion” capable of bridging the conflicts between Catholics and non-Catholics, and between believers and non-believers, conflicts which in Hugo’s view exacerbated the disparities between rich and poor.  Les Misérables is thus, as Bellos puts it, a “work of reconciliation — between the classes, but also between the conflicting currents that turn our own lives into storms. It is not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good” (p.xxiv).

* * *

             Bellos notes that Les Misérables was already an “historical” novel when it first appeared in 1862.  With its story set in a past that had ended over a quarter of a century earlier, the novel could immediately be read as an “exercise in nostalgia for a vanished world . . . [and as] an unintended guide to the way things used to be” (p.54).  To dig into the novel’s 1815-to-1835 period is thus to dig into Hugo’s own adolescence and his formative early adult years.  The son of a soldier who fought in Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars, Hugo turned 13 in 1815.

               A precocious literary youth, by 1815 Hugo had already demonstrated a flair for poetry.  By 1832, the year he turned 30, Hugo was among France’s best-known poets who had published a handful of novels, among them the immensely popular Notre Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). 1832 marked the death of Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the “undisputed eminence of European literature for the preceding half-century.”  Bellos notes that Hugo considered himself the logical candidate to step into Goethe’s shoes as “European genius-in-chief” (p.4). 1832 was also the year of the unsuccessful two-day revolt against the July monarchy, a minor episode in France’s 19th century which Hugo elevated to the center of Les Misérables through Marius’ participation in its events.

               The first draft of Hugo’s novel, whose title was initially Les Misères, was written in Paris between November 1845 and February 1848. Although this draft no longer exists, scholars have concluded that its plot corresponds closely to that of the final version.  1845 was also the year when Hugo was appointed a peer in France’s upper legislative chamber.  He was working on Marius’ involvement in the 1832 upheaval at the time of the 1848 uprising against the regime of King Louis-Philippe, and found himself, improbably, on the front lines defending the regime – an “experience like no other Hugo had ever had, and not easy to square with his views, his feelings, and his position” (p.47-48).  Hugo’s role in in the suppression of the popular revolt of 1848 was, Bellos argues, “what he had to come to terms with to carry on with his book, and what he [had] to come terns with in his book if it [was] to be the ‘social and moral panorama’ that he intended it to be” (p.113-14).

              Hugo’s position as an establishment figure ended definitively when he became one of the most outspoken and relentless critics of Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état.  Forced into exile, he fled initially to Brussels and from there to the Channel Islands, outposts of the British crown off the coast of France. After living first on the Channel Island of Jersey, Hugo and his entourage landed in Guernsey in 1855, with his draft novel gathering dust in a trunk.  He established residence for his family at an elaborate mansion known as Hauteville House, overlooking the sea.  Juliette was assigned to a smaller house nearby.  In 1859, Napoleon III issued an amnesty to those who had opposed his seizure of power in 1851.  Many of the exiles on Channel Islands chose to return to France, but Hugo elected to stay.  But it was not until April 25, 1860, that Hugo went back to the trunk that had followed him from Jersey and pulled out the musty pages of the work he had spent little time on since 1848.

            From that date onward, Bellos’ narrative gathers momentum as he traces the frenetic period that followed.   By this time, Hugo had changed the name of his work from Les Misères to Les Misérables, his innovative term that shifted the meaning from the “poor,” “pitiable” or “despicable” to something more inclusive that suggests solidarity among the less fortunate: a “moral and social identity that had no name before” (p.103).  Hugo finally settled on the names of most of his characters in early 1861. These names have become so familiar, Bellos observes, that it “takes an effort to realize that they all had to be invented, for none of them was taken from the existing stock of French first and family names” (p.115).  Hugo did not finalize Jean Valjean’s name until March 1861.  Previously he had been Jean Tréjan, Jacques Sou and Jean Vlajean.

            Hugo’s work was technically covered by the same contract that had paid him in the 1830s for Notre Dame de Paris.  Because of concerns that the novel might be subject to censorship or litigation if published in France, Hugo shifted to Albert Lacroix and his Brussels-based, politically liberal micro-publishing firm.  Hugo needed a buy out of his original contract and overall wanted more for Les Misérables than had ever been paid to an author for any book. He largely got it, nearly 3 million British pounds in today’s currency, with about 40% of that amount being paid to him up-front, in cash, prior to publication.  Hugo’s deal with Lacroix, worked out in a single day when Lacroix visited Hugo at Hauteville House without having read the draft of the novel, was thus the “contract of the century,” to use the title of one of Bellos’ chapters.

            Hugo got his cash payment on time, in December 1860, because Oppenheim Bank of Brussels agreed to lend money to Lacroix to pay for the book.  For Hugo, debt and crime were two sides of the same coin, and Bellos notes the irony of a novel “so firmly opposed to debt being launched on the back of a major loan – probably the first loan ever made by a merchant bank to finance a book,” thereby placing Les Misérables “at the vanguard of . . . the use of venture capital to fund the arts” (p.143).

          Hugo was still working on the latter portions of the novel when Parts I and II appeared in print on April 4, 1862.  A full two months later, on June 14, 1862, Hugo “corrected the last galley of the last volume of Les Misérables and dispatched it to Brussels.”  Over the course of the previous nine months, he had “turned a single-copy manuscript of a still unfinished work into the greatest publishing sensation of his age” (p.260).

             While Hugo was confined to Hauteville House finalizing his novel, daughter Adèle was in Paris serving as the publicity manager for its launch, working with her brother Charles and Lacroix, both in Brussels. Adèle had to raise the interest and enthusiasm level for the novel to a “pitch so high it would discourage the authorities from banning or seizing the book.  But she also had to let not a scrap of it be seen in advance. The requirement to boost the book while keeping it secret made the publicity manager’s job a work of art” (p.223).   Adèle promoted the book through a billboard campaign.  She also gave advance portions to newspapers, but told them they couldn’t print them until she gave a go ahead.  Thanks to the advance work, the book had been “trumped in all the media then available” in France, a “country that the author refused to enter” (p.228).

            Les Misérables was to go on sale in other major European cities outside France at the same time.  Adèle, Charles and Lacroix thus devised what Bellos labels the “first truly international book launch,” but with an infrastructure that was “barely ready for it: paddle steamers, a rail network that still had more gaps than connections, four-horse diligences and maybe, on the approaches to St. Petersburg, a jingling three-horse sleigh” (p.228).

             From its initial appearances, there was an electricity attached to Hugo’s novel that is difficult for us to fathom more than a century and a half later. The first two parts of Les Misérables sold out in France in two days. The crush for the first copies “verged on a riot” (p.231).  Groups of workers pooled their limited means to buy a copy of the book, passed it around among members of the group, and took turns reading its nearly 2,000 pages to fellow workers who were unable to read.  But the French press did not share readers’ enthusiasm for Les Misérables.  Left wing and socialist critiques were lukewarm; those in the right wing press were stinging.

          Outside France, one recurring criticism of the novel was that it was too rooted in French history, and thus lacked deep meaning for non-French reading audiences. These criticisms were not unfounded, Bellos points out.  Underlying Les Misérables was Hugo’s view that France was the “moral and intellectual powerhouse of the world,” with Les Misérables serving as the “first full formulation of the conventional explanation of the exceptional status of France” (p.235).  One of the larger purposes of Les Misérables, which begins at the end of France’s revolutionary period, was to make the French Revolution the “well-spring of nineteenth-century civilization and so to heal the bleeding wound that it bequeathed to subsequent generations of French men and women” (p.38).

            When the publisher of the first Italian translation of Les Misérables fretted that the legacy of the French Revolution had little relevance to his readers, Hugo responded with a “grandiose reply,” in which he “pulled out all the rhetorical stops” (p.237).  Hugo said that while he did not know whether Les Misérables would be read by all, he had written it for everyone. “I write,” Hugo explained:

with a deep love for my country but without preoccupying myself with France more than any other nation. As I grow older I grow simpler and become increasingly a patriot of humanity.  That is the trend of our times and the law of radiation of the French Revolution. To respond to the growing enlargement of civilization, books must stop being exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish or English, and become European; more than that, human (p.237).

* * *

          As if to respond himself to the Italian publisher and others in Hugo’s time who considered Les Misérables too Franco-centric, Bellos concludes that the novel’s “moral compass,” extends “far beyond the history, geography, politics and economics of the world in which its story is set. The novel achieves the extraordinary feat of being at the same time an intricately realistic portrait of a specific place and time, a dramatic page-turner with masterful moments of theatrical suspense and surprise, an encyclopedia of facts and ideas and an easily understood demonstration of generous moral principles that we could do far worse than to apply to our lives today” (p.259).  Bellos’ conclusion could also be considered a final riposte to those modern-day skeptics who doubt whether Les Misérables rises to the level of great art.  Few readers of Bellos’ erudite yet easy-to-read account are likely to side with the skeptics.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 17, 2018

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under French History, Literature, Uncategorized

Novel Biography

 

Alice Kaplan, Looking For “The Stranger”:

Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic 

 

            In Looking For The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, Alice Kaplan,  Professor of Literature at Yale University and one of the English-speaking world’s leading authorities on modern French literature, seeks to bring a fresh perspective to Albert Camus and his signature novel, L’Etranger — known in North America as The Stranger and in Great Britain as The Outsider. Kaplan describes her story as a biography of a book, “connected to the life of its creator but also separate and distinct from him” (p.3).  Finding that Camus’ personality overshadows his novel in traditional biographies, Kaplan aims to tell the story of how Camus “created this singular book” by getting “as close as [she] can to his process and his state of mind as he creates The Stranger” (p.3-4).

          Kaplan’s central premise is that the elements of The Stranger were nearly fixed in Camus’ mind before he started writing.  The job of writing the  novel entailed coaxing these elements out of the mind and onto the written page, then tying them together.  In this sense, Camus “discovered the novel within himself” (p.3).  Kaplan thus examines how The Stranger went from glimmers and flashes in Camus’s mind in the late 1930s to a published volume in 1942, and in the years after publication became one of the 20th century’s most widely read novels.

             The Stranger changed the course of modern literature, Kaplan contends. Camus gave “new energy to the novel, a form that had existed for centuries, by turning it outwards, simplifying its expression and deepening its purpose” (p.83).   The story itself is, as Kaplan puts it, “deceptively simple” (p.1). The lead character, Meursault, like Camus an Algerian of French descent, learns in the book’s opening paragraph that his mother died. He attends her funeral. The day after the funeral, in Kaplan’s succinct summation, Meursault:

goes swimming with a girl friend and takes her to the movies. He writes a letter for a friend who is a pretty rough character. He kills an Arab on a beach in Algiers. He is tried and sentenced to death and, as the novel ends, he awaits execution (p.1).

Camus divided the story into two parts, with Meursault’s first person narration before and after the murder. The Arab whom Meursault kills is given no name in the novel, a matter that raises more questions today than it did in Camus’ time.

          Among The Stranger’s many mysteries is the spelling of the name of the novel’s narrator.  The only surviving draft spells Meursault without the first “u,” Mersault.  Inserting the “u,” Kaplan notes, adds an allusion to the French word for plunge, sauter, and to death, meur, as well as being the name of a famous French wine that apparently impressed Camus as a young man.  Without the “u,” the name has more of a Spanish sound and could have belonged to a European of Spanish descent.  Kaplan raises the possibility that the fateful “u” was added only by the publisher in the final page proofs.   There is no record that Camus ever clarified how he intended to spell his lead character’s name.

            As she endeavors to unlock this and other enigmas of The Stranger, Kaplan also includes enough about Camus the man to give the work some of the flavor of a traditional biography.  With the novel set in pre-independence Algeria, where Camus was born in 1913 and grew up as a dirt-poor European in a predominantly Muslim and Arab country, Kaplan also gives her readers a sense of what Algeria was like as a French colony.  But The Stranger was published not in Algeria but in Paris in 1942, at the height of the Nazi occupation, “one of the most humiliating and complicated climates for publishing in French history” (p.3).  Kaplan thus provides an incisive look into the milieu in which French writers and publishers struggled to survive during the Nazi occupation (a subject covered in more detail in Alan Riding’s fine work, And the Show Went On, reviewed here in September 2012). Kaplan skillfully weaves this contextual background into her biography of Camus’ novel, making her compact and thoughtful book highly engaging and often intriguing.

* * *

          Algeria in the 1930s was in its final decades of colonization before achieving independence from France in 1962 after a protracted war of independence. First colonized in the 1830s, Algeria by the 1930s was more than a French colony: it was part of la France d’outre mer, overseas France (or Greater France), made up of three administrative units that were départements every bit as much as the départements in mainland France.  Algiers, where Europeans lived in neighborhoods that looked like Marseille, was France’s fourth largest city. But liberté, égalité and fraternité went only so far in la France d’outre mer. By one of the odder particularities of colonial rule, Jews born and raised in Algeria were deemed full-fledged, 100% French citizens — like Camus and his family.  Arabs and Berbers, whom we might today term indigenous peoples, enjoyed by contrast almost none of the rights of Frenchmen, making Algeria a society structured on rank inequality.  Although Camus was “appalled by colonial violence and deeply hostile to [French] government policy” (p.51) in the 1930s, he was not yet a proponent of independence.  He saw his duty as a social critic to “strengthen French humanistic values” (p.51) in the administration of Algeria.

          Camus’ family was part of Algeria’s settler class, at the bottom of the European hierarchy, but nonetheless with privileges foreclosed to the Arab population.  His mother was of Spanish descent, illiterate, and almost totally deaf.  His father, an agricultural worker of French descent, died in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne in World I, when his son was one year old. Although brought up in dire poverty, young Camus was a promising pupil in primary school and received a scholarship that allowed him to attend a lycée, an elite French secondary school.  At the lycée, he proved to be an outstanding student, as well as a gifted athlete who enjoyed football, boxing and swimming — a “force of nature, physically unstoppable” (p.9). At age 17, however, Camus contracted tuberculosis, at the time frequently a fatal disease.

             Camus received a degree from the University of Algiers in 1936, where he had studied philosophy and literature. While an undergraduate, Camus met his first wife, Simone Hié, whom he married in 1934, when he was 21 and she was 20. At both the lycée and university, Camus was a student of philosopher Jean Grenier, who helped him develop his literary and philosophical ideas and became Camus’ life-long mentor.  Throughout the 1930s, Camus read avidly, was active in theatre, and became a prominent figure among left-wing intellectuals in Algiers, joining the Algerian Communist Party for a short time.

              After university, Camus worked for the Alger Républicain, a struggling, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist newspaper, where he wrote literary reviews and covered major trials, including several that grew out of ethnic tensions between Europeans and Arabs in Algeria.  As a court reporter, Camus assumed the role of what Kaplan terms a “lobbyist for justice,” earning a “reputation as a troublemaker with the colonial government” (p.39). Camus’ impatience with the hypocrisy of the courts became one of the cornerstones for the novel that was then percolating in his mind.

          As the novel percolated, Camus drew on memories of his own life with his near-deaf mother, “whose vocabulary amounted to 400 words and who had little language to give him beyond her gestures” (p.67).   In this concrete world, “objects come first, concepts last, and each sense is given its due.”  Because his first, most intimate attempts at communication were “defined by the absence of verbal understanding,” as Camus formulated his novel the physical world “became essential” (p.67).  Meursault and The Stranger thus emerged from the conditions of Camus’ own life. But Kaplan is emphatic that The Stranger should not be considered autobiographical.  If anything, Camus was reversing his life story, she argues:

Camus’s childish love for his deaf mother became Meursault’s indifference. The silent world in which he had grown up became the noisy place where Meursault heard every sound. Camus’ hatred of colonial violence expressed itself through Meursault’s murder of an Arab (p.85).

             Camus had a moment of epiphany in the fall of 1938, when he wrote the first five sentences of his percolating novel.  These five sentences did not change over the next four years, prior to publication in 1942. At that moment, Camus realized that “this was his beginning, and he stuck with it” (p.65). By mid-1939, Camus knew that his narrator “was going to kill an Arab,” at a time when there was “an abundance of material in the press about conflicts between Arabs and Europeans” (p.43-44).

            When war broke out later in 1939, Camus, 26 years old, was determined unfit for military service because of his tuberculosis.  With France at war, Alger Républicain was targeted as a security risk that authorities sought to shut down.  Camus then embarked on a four-year odyssey in which he moved back and forth between Algeria and France, ended his marriage to Simon Hié and married Francine Faure, all the while continuing to plug away at The Stranger.  In 1940, Camus landed a job with Paris-Soir, a prestigious French newspaper based in Paris, while he worked on The Stranger every day and part of every night.

           Living and writing in a drab Montmartre hotel, Camus “discovered that he could be in the middle of a paragraph, go off to work his shift at Paris-Soir, come back to the hotel and pick up exactly where he had left off, with no difficulty . . . [H]e had never done creative work with so much ease, and certainly not fiction” (p.79).  By April 1940, Camus had completed chapters 1 and 2 of his novel, and had started on chapter 3.  On May 1, 1940, Camus pronounced The Stranger finished, although significant vetting still lay ahead as he sought a publisher.  But the exaltation he felt upon completion of The Stranger was quickly dissipated by a relapse of tuberculosis — a relapse which subsequently rendered him too weak to read the page proofs of his novel.

           Later that same May 1940, the Nazis invaded France and in June 1940 the occupation of Paris began. Camus followed Paris-Soir out of Paris when the paper moved to Clermont-Ferrand.  By the end of year, however, he returned to Algeria, where he joined his new wife Francine and, relying upon  the uncertain wartime mail service, continued his efforts to find a publisher for The Stranger, along with Caligula and his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, two other pieces he had been working on simultaneously. He sent his manuscripts to Jean Grenier, his former lycée and university teacher then living in France, and Pascal Pia, an editor at Paris-Soir.  Both men provided Camus with comments on The Stranger.

              Grenier, still an esteemed mentor, did not give his former student high marks for his work.  In what Kaplan terms “one of the great misunderstandings of a literary achievement” (p.109), Grenier seemed to go out of his way to highlight perceived shortcomings in The Stranger.  Grenier emphasized how the work did not measure up to those of Kafka, as if Camus was intent upon following in Kafka’s path.  In addition, Grenier had the temerity to compare the parts of the draft he liked to his own work.   Grenier’s reservations about The Stranger, Kaplan notes, although deeply discouraging at the time, may have been a gift to Camus that permitted him to break free of his former mentor.

          Pia’s response, by contrast, was “a beautiful example of generous reading, of enablement,” to the point that he and Grenier “seem to have read entirely different books” (p.113).  Pia also sent the manuscript to Roland Malraux, who passed the draft to his brother, renowned French writer André Malraux.  A “wonderful reader” (p.122), André Malraux was wildly enthusiastic about The Stranger and offered several practical suggestions for revisions.  Unfortunately, Malraux’s comments and Camus’ reaction to them have not survived, and we therefore do not know the extent to which Camus followed Malraux’s advice.

        Working independently, Grenier and Pia gravitated toward the major Parisian publishing firm Editions Gallimard as the potential publisher for The Stranger.  Publishing had become a particularly delicate enterprise in occupied Paris, involving an “unpredictable and politically fraught” process (p.132), in which Nazi overseers closely monitored the activities of publishing houses.  The houses were barred from publishing anything by Jewish writers, and otherwise had to stay away from works that looked “political,” a porous term that could encompass any work that reflected unfavorably upon the Nazis and their occupation of France and its capital.  Somehow, The Stranger was able to navigate through these obstacles: the novel was deemed “apolitical” and Camus was of the “right” ethnic heritage.

              On December 12, 1941, Camus authorized Gallimard to publish The Stranger before he had signed a contract, something he never would have done in ordinary times.  On April 21, 1942, after overcoming a wartime paper shortage, the last pages of The Stranger rolled off the printing presses.  In May 1942, Camus received a promised advance, and an advertisement for the book appeared in the Parisian daily newspaper Le Figaro in June.

            In a review in Le Figaro later that year, André Rousseaux, a highly literate, conservative Catholic, delved deeply into the novel and, as we would say in modern parlance, trashed it. Rousseaux showed no sympathy for Meursault, who was “simply inhuman” and Camus’ talent had “made his narrator’s inhumanity all the more despicable” (p.147).   But The Stranger survived this unflattering review, in no small measure because of a far more sympathetic assessment from none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, the ubiquitous philosopher and writer who by then set the terms of intellectual debate in France.

           Sartre’s review, entitled “The Stranger Explained,” was published in February 1943, and served as a major turning point for Camus’ novel. Sartre characterized The Stranger as a work that comes from “across the sea; an outsider novel, interested neither in burying the ancient regime one more time nor in indulging in self-loathing – two commonplaces of the modern French novel.”  The Stranger, Sartre wrote, was thus a “welcome reminder, in a terribly political moment, that a novel could exist with nothing to prove” (p.158-59). The attention that Sartre paid to Camus and his seriousness of analysis “defined The Stranger as an essential contemporary novel,” Kaplan writes. “Once Sartre had spoken, The Stranger’s future was all but guaranteed” (p.156).  Camus became close to both Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir in the years immediately following The Stranger’s publication, although they fell out in the 1950s, ostensibly over political differences during the Cold War.

          The Stranger gained in stature in the late 1940s, as France struggled to reestablish its vaunted cultural life, and soared in esteem throughout the 1950s, the final decade of Camus’s life.  In 1957, Camus earned the Nobel prize for literature, based primarily upon the success of The Stranger (p.197). By this time, Camus had been recognized as a proponent of existentialism, the philosophy most closely associated with Sartre and Beauvoir. It was a label Camus resisted.

         Camus and Sartre had, Kaplan notes, a different notion of human potential that precluded Camus from embracing Sartre’s brand of philosophy. “For Sartre what mattered was consciousness – people getting along, or not getting along with one another.  Whereas for Camus what mattered was the insignificance of man against the world” (p.191).   But these distinctions were overlooked in the 1950s by the “demands of publicity and by the excitement over the latest intellectual fashion” (p.191; existentialism and Camus’s relationship with Sartre are at the heart of Sarah Blackwell’s highly-acclaimed At the Existentialist Café, reviewed here in April 2017).

          However Camus may have considered himself, the world saw him as an existentialist in January 1960, when he died in an automobile accident while riding to Paris with publisher and friend Michel Gallimard and Michel’s wife Janine.   A train ticket was found in Camus’ pocket, indicating that he may have decided only at the last minute to travel back to Paris by car with the Gallimards.  With his premature death,  Kaplan wistfully observes, there would be “no bad books for Albert Camus and he would never disappoint his readers” (p.198-99).

             In the years since Camus’ death, The Stranger has been analyzed in all the modern schools of literary construction and interpretation: in addition to existentialism, these include new criticism, deconstruction, feminism, and post colonial studies.  The most consistent criticism of The Stranger has been the lack of a name for the Arab killed, for many a stark reminder of the raw inhumanity of colonization in Algeria.  In 1962, two years after Camus’ death, colonization came to an end as Algeria achieved independence after a brutal civil war that had begun as World War II ended.

              Recently, Kaplan notes, an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, has written a well-received work of fiction, The Meursault Investigation, which tells The Stranger’s story from the viewpoint of the brother of the Arab killed. In the French translation from the Arabic, the narrator’s brother is “Moussa,” a name that “delicately echoes Meursault” (p.206).  But in the English translation, Moussa becomes “Musa,” closer, Kaplan notes, to Camus than Meursault.  Perhaps it is fitting that the Arab with no name in Camus’ novel has become, in the languages of two of history’s most wide-ranging colonizers, an Arab with two names.

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                 In just over 200 pages, Kaplan presents a comprehensive “biography” of one of the 20th century’s most consequential novels – its gestation period, birth, early years, adolescence and adulthood – strengthened by her judicious account of the novel’s author and his times and places.  Her work should appeal to those who have read The Stranger recently as well as those who read it decades ago.  It should also entice those who have not yet read Camus’ enigmatic work to do so.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2018

 

 

10 Comments

Filed under France, French History, Literature

Living Philosophy

 

 

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café:

Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails 

            Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails takes a deep but refreshingly casual look at the philosophical way of thinking termed existentialism, giving the term an historical treatment grounded in the actual lives of existentilist philosophers.  Part philosophy, part history, part biography, her  work is also part autobiographical.  Bakewell, a British writer and teacher who is the author of a highlyacclaimed book on Montaigne, endearingly details her own journey in learning about existentialism and explains how major existential writings influenced her personally.  Philosophy, she contends,  “becomes more interesting when it is cast into the form of a life.” Likewise, “personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically” (p.32).  Quite so.

More than just about any other form of philosophy, existentialism cannot really be understood without digging into the day-to-day lives of existential philosophers themselves. The existentialist, Bakewell emphasizes, seeks to capture the “quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other –isms and disciplines that explain our lives away” (p.325). Bakewell acknowledges that existentialism is difficult to define more precisely, with no consensus definition. For some, it is “more of a mood than a philosophy” (p.1). Her definition is itself a page long, and she invites her readers to skip over it.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and elusive term, existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation might best be thought of as a way of thinking about existence for human beings. It focuses upon how humans  live the moments large and small in the time allotted to them, i.e., how they exist. Humans are unique beings in that they are free to choose how they live and are responsible for their choices, but only within what Bakewell describes as a “situation,” which includes a person’s own biology and psychology as well as the “physical, historical and social variables” of each human being’s situation.  The existentialist therefore sees human existence,  Bakewell emphasizes, as  “ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating” (p.34).

Bakewell’s hardcopy cover features sketches of four individuals: Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir at the center, flanked by Albert Camus on their left and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to their right. Sartre and Beauvoir are not only at the center of the cover: they are also the center of Bakewell’s story, occupying the main table at her Existentialist Café, a “big, busy café of the mind” (p.33). Existentialism is above all the story of Sartre and Beauvoir, philosophy’s ultimate power couple, defined by their writings and their lives. Because Sartre and Beauvoir famously lived those lives in Paris, the story’s main setting is France and the Parisian intellectual milieu from the late 1920s until Sartre’s death in 1980 and Beauvoir’s six years later (almost to the day), in 1986.

The Existentialist Café is thus a Parisian café, probably located somewhere on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, much like the actual cafés where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote, drank, met friends and acquaintances, and thrashed out their existential ideas over the course of a half-century. Sartre and Beauvoir became a couple in 1929, when they were 23 and 21 respectively. From the beginning, their relationship was explicitly open-ended, allowing both partners to pursue amorous digressions. But their relationship was also what Bakewell terms a “philosophical demonstration of existentialism in practice, defined by the two principles of freedom and companionship” (p120). Although the bourgeois ideal of marriage held no appeal for either, their “shared memories, observations and jokes bound them together just as in any long marriage” (p.120).

Camus and Merleau-Ponty, not quite existentialists in the sense that Bakewell uses the term, were Sartre and Beauvoir’s contemporaries who drank frequently with them and thought, wrote and argued – often vehemently — about many of the ideas that animated Sartre and Beauvoir.  Merleau-Ponty, far less well known than Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, merits a full chapter in Bakewell’s work, part of her effort to introduce him to English language readers. Camus and Merleau-Ponty both had fallings out with Sartre and Beauvoir, partially over Cold War political differences and partially because Sartre’s outsized personality led naturally to fallings out with just about everyone he befriended, save Beauvoir. Camus and Merleau-Ponty’s fluctuating relationships with Sartre and Beauvoir constitute one of the book’s two main threads.

The other is the influence exerted upon the couple  by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Germans of an older generation associated with an approach to philosophy termed phenomenology, existentialism’s direct antecedent. Heidegger, infamous for embracing Nazism in the 1930s and remaining steadfastly unrepentant thereafter, is a brooding, almost villainous presence throughout Bakewell’s study — a scary guy when he drops in at the Existentialist Café, unlikely to be telling many jokes. Some of the 20th century’s foremost thinkers, writers and intellectuals also make short appearances at Bakewell’s café, including Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

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            Existentialism may be a difficult term to define, but its origins are easy to pinpoint in Bakewell’s account: a conversation during the 1932-33 Christmas holiday season, involving Sartre, Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, Sartre’s classmate at France’s renowned Ecole Normale Superièure.  The conversation  took place at Paris’ Bac-de-Gaz café on Boulevard Montparnasse, about a mile from the Boulevard St. Germain cafés Beauvoir and Sartre later made famous.  Sartre, 27, and Beauvoir, 25, were then teaching high school in separate locations in Normandy and were back home in Paris enjoying the holiday break. Aron had just returned from studying philosophy in Berlin, a city then on edge, with Adolph Hitler’s unruly National Socialist party enjoying a surge in representation in Weimar Germany’s Parliament. The three 20 somethings exchanged banter and the latest gossip as they drank apricot cocktails, the Bac-de-Gaz’s specialty.

Aron recounted to his friends his discovery in Berlin of phenomenology, then considered a new approach to philosophy.  He explained how eminent philosophers  Husserl and  Heidegger were turning away from the often-contorted abstractions of traditional philosophy to concentrate on things as they are – being was the key word. Husserl and Heidegger were asking questions such as: what is it for a thing to be? What does it mean to say you are? Looking at the apricot cocktails on the table, Aron told his friends, “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p.3). Although Sartre and Beauvoir were familiar with the works of Husserl and Heidegger, in Bakewell’s account this moment at the Montparnasse café was an epiphany for both, the moment when the approach to the philosophy hat we now call existentialism came into being.  Together, over the course of nearly a half-century, Sartre and Beauvoir went  on to transform some of the basic ideas of phenomenology into their own distinct way of thinking.

Sartre subsequently studied  in Germany under Husserl. But the roots of existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation may be found even further back than Heidegger and Husserl, in the work of 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. The “heralds of modern existentialism,” Nietzsche and Kierkegaard “pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life. They also worked in the conviction that philosophy was not just a profession. It was life itself – the life of an individual” (p.20).

20th century phenomenology built upon and systematized Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s iconoclastic way of thinking. It sought, as Bakewell puts it, to give a “formal mode of access to human experience,” allowing philosophers to “talk about life more or less as non-philosophers do, while still being able to tell themselves they are being methodological and rigorous” (p.43). This mode of access to human experience flourished amidst the turmoil of post-World War I Germany under Hussserl,  considered to be the “father” of phenomenology, and Heidegger, Husserl’s student and subsequently his colleague at the University of Freiburg.  For Husserl, phenomenology meant “stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return to what he called the ‘things themselves’” (p.40). As Hitler’s virulent form of xenophobic nationalism took hold in Germany, Husserl, born into a Jewish family, sought to retain the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free inquiry (p.132). He died in 1938 at age 79.

Heidegger took phenomenology in a different direction in the 1930s. His appeal to students was that he sought nothing less than to “overturn human thinking, destroy the history of metaphysics, and start philosophy all over again” (p.62). His writings revealed a yearning to go back “into the deep forest, into childhood innocence and into the dark waters from which the first swirling chords of thought had stirred. Back . . . to a time when societies were simple, profound and poetic” (p.131). Heidegger urged his students to exercise   “vigilance,” to transcend the human tendency to become stuck in habits, received ideas, and a narrow-minded attachment to possessions.

But vigilance for Heidegger in Hitler’s Germany “did not mean calling attention to Nazi violence, to the intrusion of state surveillance, or to the physical threats to his fellow humans. It meant being decisive and resolute in carrying through the demands history was making upon Germany, with its distinctive Being and destiny. It meant getting in step with the chosen hero” (p.87). Heidegger “set himself against the philosophy of humanism, and he himself was rarely humane in his behavior” (p.320), Bakewell contends. She notes an instance where Heidegger went out of his way late in life to welcome the Jewish poet and concentration camp survivor Paul Celan to Freiburg. Bakewell terms this the “single documented example” she found in her research of Heidegger “actually doing something nice” (p.304-05).

Sartre was hardly more likeable — “monstrous . . . self-indulgent, demanding [and] bad tempered” (p.321-22). But behind these less commendable qualities, Bakewell finds an endearing man with powerful ideas bursting out “on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness” (p.322). Unlike Heidegger, Sartre “moved ever forwards, always working out new (often bizarre) responses to things, or finding ways of reconciling old ideas with fresh input. . .  He was always thinking ‘against himself,’” and he “followed Husserl’s phenomenological command by exploring whatever topic seemed most difficult at each moment” (p.322). Freedom became the great subject of Sartre’s philosophy during the Nazi occupation, central to almost everything he wrote from that point onward.

The connection between description and freedom  fascinated Sartre. “A writer is a person who describes, and thus a person who is free – for a person who can exactly describe what he or she experiences can also exert some control over those events. Sartre explored this link between writing and freedom again and again in his work” (p.104).   Bakewell is impressed by Sartre’s radical atheism, so different from that professed by Heidegger, who “abandoned his faith only in order to pursue a more intense form of mysticism.  Sartre was a profound atheist, and a humanist to his bones. He outdid even Nietzsche in his ability to live courageously and thoughtfully in the conviction that nothing lies beyond, and that no divine compensations will ever make up for anything on this earth.” For Sartre, Bakewell writes with emphasis, “this life is what we have, and we must make of it what we can” (p.323).

Beauvoir in Bakewell’s view was a better fiction writer than Sartre, exploring in her writings how the forces of constraint and freedom play themselves out in everyday lives. One of the 20th century’s “greatest intellectual chroniclers” (p.326), with a “genius for being amazed by the world” (p.109), Beauvoir is best known today for her landmark 1949 feminist tract, The Second Sex, a work “revolutionary in every sense”(p.208) which addressed the “complex territory where free choice, biology and social and cultural factors meet and mingle” (p.226).

How to be a woman was for Beauvoir the “existentialist problem par excellence” (p.215).  Bakewell terms The Second Sex a “confident experiment in what we might call ‘applied existentialism,’” in which Beauvoir “used philosophy to tackle two huge subjects: the history of humanity – which she reinterpreted as a history of patriarchy – and the history of an individual woman’s whole life as it plays itself out from birth to old age” (p.208). The Second Sex in Bakewell’s view is the “single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement” (p.210).

Left-wing politics were a huge part of the existentialist agenda for both Sartre and Beauvoir, with Sartre the more overtly political.  Sartre was never a Communist party member, and his relationship to communism is not the mirror image of Heidegger and Nazism. But Sartre adopted some outlandish left-wing ideas.  He embraced anti-colonialist Franz Fanon’s rejection of Gandhi’s notion of non-violent change, considering violence essential to political progress.  His embrace,  Bakewell writes, was so enthusiastic that he “outdid the original, shifting the emphasis so as to prize violence for its own sake. Sartre seemed to see the violence of the oppressed as a Nietzchean act of self-creation. Like Fanon, he also contrasted it with the hidden brutality of colonialism” (p.274).

Sartre was the direct target of Raymond Aron’s classic 1955 work, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which his Ecole Normale classmate accused Sartre of being “merciless towards the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worse crimes as long as they are committed in the name of proper doctrines” (p. 266).   Sartre was troubled by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary but it was not until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the “Prague Spring” that he definitively rejected the Soviet model, “only to praise people like Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot instead” (p.293).

Cold War differences also upended Sartre and Beauvoir’s friendship with their contemporaries and formerly close companions Merleau-Ponty and Camus. Bakewell describes Merleau Ponty as the “happy philosopher of things as they are” (p.326), the sole thinker at Bakewell’s Existentialist Café who seemed to have had a happy childhood. Beauvoir once considered Merleau-Ponty, born months before her in 1908, potential boyfriend material before concluding that his sunny bourgeois outlook was a poor fit with her more combative disposition. On the cover, Merleau-Ponty is the only one of the three men dressed in a suit and tie, and he seems in this account a little out of place at the Existentialist café — the fellow who joins the gang for a few drinks after a day’s work, then catches the train back to a suburban home to spend the rest of the evening with the wife and kids.

But if the non-Bohemian Merleau-Ponty was out of place at the Existentialist Café, Bakewell considers him the “intellectual hero” of her story for providing the fullest description of “how we live from moment to moment, and thus of what we are” (p.325). Merleau-Ponty brought the insights of psychology and cognitive science to the study of philosophy, and in particular elevated child psychology as an essential component of philosophy, an “extraordinary insight.” Apart from Rousseau, Bakewell notes,  few philosophers before Merleau-Ponty had taken childhood seriously.  Most “wrote as though all human experience were that of a fully conscious, rational, verbal adult who has been dropped into this world from the sky – perhaps by a stork” (p.231).  Very favorable to Communism in the 1940s, Merleau-Ponty became disaffected with its ideological rigidity in the 1950s, at  the time of the Korean War. He laid out his case against Communism in a 1955 book, Adventures of the Dialectic, which included a chapter entitled “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism” that criticized Sartre’s political writings for their inconsistencies and lack of practicality. The work prompted a rift between the two men that healed only upon Merleau-Ponty’s death in 1961 from a heart attack at age 53, when Sartre wrote a glowing obituary about his one-time friend.

Camus is the “new kid on the block” at Bakewell’s Existential Café, a brash outsider from Algeria unwilling to be intimidated by Sartre (although quite willing to be charmed by Beauvoir). Camus’ vision was embodied in his 1942 piece, The Myth of Sisyphus where he argued, as Bakewell puts it, that we must “decide whether to give up or keep going. If we keep going, it must be on the basis of accepting that there is no ultimate meaning to what we do” (p.150). Sartre and Beauvoir rejected Camus’ vision. For them, Bakewell emphasizes, “life is not absurd . . . Life for them is full of real meaning, although that meaning emerges differently for each of us” (p.151).  Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel laid out a theory of rebellion and political activism that Sartre viewed as an attack upon Soviet Communism and its fellow travelers, notably himself. Dismissing The Rebel as an apology for capitalism, Sartre never forgave Camus for “playing into the hands of the right at a delicate historical moment” (p.257). But when Camus died tragically in an automobile accident in 1960 at age 43, Sartre wrote a glowing obituary, as he did the following year for Merleau-Ponty.

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            Throughout much of history, Bakewell notes, philosophy has been primarily the purview of scholars who “prided themselves on their discipline’s exquisite uselessness” (p.17). Bakewell demonstrates how Sartre, Beauvoir and the other thinkers at her Existentialist Café broke that mold, shaping what she terms “philosophy as a way of life” (p.17).  She further demonstrates how a skillful writer can bring philosophy as a way of life to life through a narrative exquisitely engaging for general readers and specialists alike.

     Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 20, 2017

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Biography, France, French History, Intellectual History

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

Judt.1

Judt.2

Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

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